Yet the blockade has had an effect. On January 23rd the three main (and largely upland) parties in Nepal’s ruling coalition abruptly pushed through parliament amendments to a constitution promulgated, over Madhesi objections, only in September. The changes go some way to meeting the lowlanders’ demands for the political representation they feel they were promised. Under the new rules, the Terai region will now get around half of the parliamentary seats. The amendments promise (vaguely) to attach greater importance to population than to geography when fixing constituency boundaries. They also ensure a share of state jobs and favours to politically marginalised groups, in place of a fuzzy promise of “inclusion”. A new process for delimiting electoral districts should also help Madhesis.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, welcomed the changes. So did India, the regional superpower and Nepal’s lifeline. Its government had encouraged the border blockade, partly out of sympathy with Madhesis, many of whom have kin on the Indian side, but also out of fear that Kathmandu’s obstinate elites might tip Nepal into another round of strife—the country is recovering from years of turmoil, including a long insurgency by Maoist guerrillas. Fragmented by caste, religion and language as well as by region, ethnicity, spectacularly rugged terrain and politics, Nepalese society remains fragile. So does its government: C.K. Lal, an acerbic commentator, describes the ruling alliance as a “fascistic formation consisting of malignant monarchists, malicious Maoists and malevolent Marxist-Leninists—each one masquerading as nationalists.”
Previous governments have also been inept, but the death and destruction from an earthquake last April have cast the current lot in unflattering relief. Of some $1.9 billion pledged in foreign aid for the current fiscal year, which began last July, the state has not spent even one-twentieth. A special state agency created to organise earthquake relief and reconstruction has yet to choose a logo, let alone begin work. Crucial development projects, including roads and hydroelectric schemes, remain on hold, starved of either bureaucratic approval or supplies. Tourism is at a six-year low, and investment has shrivelled.
Small wonder that the government turns a blind eye to the smugglers who have kept Nepal afloat. Some Madhesis are not so happy with them; border protesters have on occasion set smuggled fuel on fire. Nor are the main Madhesi parties content. They say the constitutional changes fail to meet their main demand, which is to divide the region into no more than two provinces and grant them more local power. With the blockade less effective, they are looking for other ways to make their point. And with tempers still running high, Nepal’s troubles are not yet over. By Agencies.