Monday, 24 August 2009

Banda! Till when?

by Suman Raj Panta (Chief Editor of Asal Sasan)

Frequent strikes and closures even for small causes have made life difficult for the common people.Resorting to banda (strike) even for a tiny cause is shaping up a bad culture in the country. At one hand, it is making a mockery of the laws whereas on the other, it is severely hampering the peace, security and economy of the country. Isn't it the time to work seriously for the closure of the closures?

Fed up with banda (strike)? Here follows an interesting story for you then - three incidents of banda in one single day, i.e., July 6, 2008:

Incident 1: At 9 in the morning, there was a chakka-jam (bringing vehicles to a standstill) on Bridge No. 2 of Amlekhgunj. The chakka-jam was announced as a truck driver of Bridge No 2 threatened to stab another truck driver of Bridge No 3. Not more than 1 hour of the jam, police arrested the one who gave the threatening. But the jam organisers pressed police to surrender the driver to them. At last, the passengers themselves pressed the truck drivers and opened the highway.

Incident 2: At 11 in the morning, locals of Manahari, Makwanpur closed transportation in protest of not compensating Rs 250,000 for the death of a minor killed by a truck. "The truck owner had promised to compensate in 10 days. It's now 13 days. And he says only Rs 235,000 will be given. That's why, we came to the streets," said the locals. The police was requesting both the parties to settle their transaction later but open transportation first. When they did not agree, the police used force and opened the road.

Incident 3: At 1 in the afternoon, farmers of Taadi, Chitwan resorted to chakka-jam saying that they did not get diesel for their tractors at the time of tilling their farmlands. Finally, the jam was opened when the district administration promised that it will request the government to increase the diesel quota for them.

The incidents above, occurred within 150 kilometres of distance on a same day, had no connection with the passengers travelling from Mechi to Mahakalit and in-between on the highway. Nor they were the authorities to fulfil the demands of the banda (strike) organisers. But they suffered due to the trend of using the helplessness of the passengers as the "key weapon" to fulfil one's demands.

There is not a single day when such incidents do not occur in Nepal. According to a website,, which disseminates information on banda, there were more than 300 banda and closures nationwide in the last one year from July 2007 onwards.

The beginning
There are no clear sources of information on how the strikes began in Nepal. It is, however, supposed to have begun when the "Jayatu Sanskritam" movement began in 1947 (2004 B.S.). The culture of banda effectively resurfaced after the Popular Movement of 1990. CPN-UML, which was the then opposition party launched various strikes against the then ruling government of Nepali Congress. The trend was later promoted further by the CPN-Maoist when they began "people's armed rebellion" in 1996. Some the main party of Maoists and sometimes their regional, linguistic and ethnic outfits took the strikes ahead. The trend was then followed by other political parties and the common people as well and continued growing during all kinds of rules. Even those supposed to be the ruling parties, did not refrain from resorting to strikes.

Height of impunity
There are legal provisions which prohibit strikes of "tough" nature. According to Local Administration Act 1971 (2028 B.S.), acts such as road jam, vandalization, seizing of property and locking up of public offices, among others, are disallowed. If such things are done, the chief district officer has then the right to fine Rs 10,000 or detain for 6 months or slap both the punishments and even compel the culprits pay compensation. But this legal provision has not been brought into effect. Instead, the obstructers themselves act as the bosses of the local administration and the government mechanism.

It is a revelation that most of the strikes are due to the death of individuals from the hammering of vehicles. Other reasons of strikes are: asking for huge compensation from vehicle owners and murder on political and extortion issues, among others. "In vehicular accidents, asking for a compensation less than Rs 1 million from the vehicle owner is a mater of past now," says Gokarna Parajuli, chairperson of Narayani Transport Entrepreneurs' Association. "There are instances where as more as Rs 6.4 million was asked for compensation. The number of vehicle owners leaving their profession is growing owing to their failure in compensating the victims," adds he.

It is not that there are no political understandings at central and local level for not restoring to strikes. Some districts and cities have even declared themselves as the "strike free zone". But these commitments are hardly implemented. "The non-implementation of various declarations and understandings is the result of the law implementing bodies' inactiveness," says rights activist Arjun Basnet, who was once a leader of a movement which aimed at making Jhapa district a "strike free zone". Likewise, Badri Prasad Subedi, acting director of National Human Rights Commission in Far Western region, says "the anarchy has swelled up due to the growing feeling of statelessness." Similarly, Khadga Raj Joshi, INSEC Coordinator in the same region says "political protection to the strike organisers is an important factor in this regard."

On the other hand, Mod Raj Dotel, a former chief district officer for a long time and the current Home Ministry spokesperson, do not admit that the administration plays an "inactive" role. "The use of force is needed to stop anarchies such as strikes," he says. "But when the police force is used, everyone starts protesting against it. The National Human Rights Commission people start crying foul. That's why, we keep quiet." A police officer (DSP) who works in the Tarai region has no different views on it, as he says: "The administration uses force representing the state. But all impose blames on the officer who mobilises the force. That's why, it is our compulsion to plead to the strike organisers and fulfil their unjustifiable demands in the hope that they will call off strikes."

First target is vehicles
In most cases, the first target of all kinds of strikes is the vehicles plying on the road. Whether it is the negligence of the driver for hitting a person or the Nepal Oil Corporation increasing the fuel price, people express their ire, first of all, on vehicles. The more vehicles are vandalised, the more successful is the banda and the more, the chances of demands being fulfilled – this is a common perception of all strike organisers. As a result, vehicle owners become the most victimised ones due to the strikes. "There is a trend of seeing the faults of the vehicle owners only from the local administration, political parties and all," says Balram Lamichhane, secretary of Prithvi Highway Bus Owners' Association. "Legal provisions have limited the fine of road accident to Rs 60,000, but we have instances when the vehicle owners are pressed to pay even Rs 2 million," adds he. Fielding a query on why the transporters themselves have many times resorted to strikes, he says: "We have just followed the state's trend of listening to you only when you resort to banda." It may be noted here, the supporters of the Prithvi Highway Bus Owners' Association themselves had vandalised a tourist bus on 24 June, 2008 in Pokhara. A Korean citizen was injured in the incident.

Daily loss of millions of rupees
A single day of banda causes the losses of more than one billion rupees nationwide, according to Suresh Basnet, first vice president of Nepal Chamber of Commerce. "Many transporters have quit their professions," he says. "Those who are still here, are marginalised and those who want to do some new and creative works are frightened," adds he. The impact of strike falls not only on transporters, but also on consumers and finally on the state. Consumers have to face inflation as the strikes propel rise in the raw materials' supply and production costs, and finally, strikes also affect the national income, opines Mohan Raj Sharma, member of Kailali Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

Even when the commodity prices go up, consumers are deprived of buying them due to closures. Basic commodities, such as, water and medicines, also become dear during the strikes. Even at the time of Maoists' "people's war", ambulance and media and tourist vehicles were allowed to play during strikes, but these days, these vehicles also become the target of striker organisers. Such a trend has affected the tourism industry as well. As a consequence, the number of tourists visiting Nepal has slipped down. And those who have already arrived want to shorten their stay. It's French citizen Bruce's first visit to Nepal, but he complains that he has not been able to travel to all desired placed due to strikes. "We had expectations that the ailing tourism industry will get a rebirth after the Maoists' armed rebellion coming to an end," says Pashupati Sharma, chairperson of Nepal Tours and Travels Association, Pokhara. "But it could not happen due to frequent strikes even in tiny issues."

Student politics
If one gives a cursory look to the data of strikes, then this fact comes to the fore – students are the strike organisers in most of the cases! It seems that it's the "duty" of the students to take the educational demands, political agenda and protest on fuel price hike to the streets. And the key activities of such strikes include resorting to chakka-jam, burning tyres and vandalising vehicles. Madan Ale Magar, central member of ANNFSU (Revolutionary), the student wing of CPN-Maoist, however, says, the strikes and closures are in the "favour" of people and the country. "We become aggressive when peaceful demands are not heard," he says. "And it happens due to the failure in addressing ordinary issues and demands in time."

Strikes and closures have become a custom due to the state's status-quo and people's perception of getting "more" achievements if the strike consequences are huge, opines Thakur Gaire, chairperson of ANNFSU, the student wing of CPN-UML. "Memorandum and delegations are often ignored," he says. "When the smoke of tyre reaches their cerebral, only then the same demand is fulfilled. In such a situation, there is no option than to resort to strikes."

Those who are in-charge of the state mechanism, however, do not agree with what the student leaders say. "Thousands of memorandums pour to us in the centre and in districts," says Home Ministry spokesperson Dotel. "Who will give an ear to our practical problem?"

The legal provisions on strikes were made tougher introducing an amendment in the existing Local Administration Act, 1971 on 26 August, 2007. The provisions say that the strikes, closures and lock outs are totally banned and the organisers will have to compensate the victims if they resort to such activities. In severe cases, the strike organisers can also be imprisoned. As sad as it could be, these all provisions do exist, but only in the law books. There is no implementation at all. There is a dire need of bringing the "dead" laws into effect so that the bad culture of banda could be halted effectively.

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