Diarrhoeal deaths in Jajarkot Implications for statute writing

Diarrhoeal disease can be treated effectively particularly in the early stages through the use of oral re-hydration solutions and, more recently, by the administration of zinc tablets, which are cheap and convenient. However, even such a disease has as of July 12 taken a toll of around 100 lives in Jajarkot district alone and is now spreading into adjoining areas with increasing fatalities. The health minister himself went to Jajarkot with medical supplies and personnel, although one wonders if the situation in other remote districts could be any different in this respect.

One cruel aspect of the tragedy is that the disease has been raging in Jajarkot district for the last two months, and there has been little or no concern expressed by the health authorities, nor by the elected representatives, nor by the political parties including the “people’s warriors”, nor the civil society, nor the donor community, nor the ethnic and dalit organisations, and not much even by the media in which one gets to read more about swine flu, which is dreaded by the West but has yet to cause any fatality in Nepal. All attention is drawn to the political drama and power game being played out in Kathmandu punctuated by regular bandhs, kidnappings, killings and maiming, accompanied by the hackneyed refrains of “constitution writing on time” and “bringing the peace process to its logical end”.

The situation is not that Nepal does not have a Constitution at present. The country is governed under an Interim Constitution which has gone through umpteen amendments. So the question that can be raised is what is so deficient about the present Constitution that the people of Jajarkot had to suffer the tragedy and indignity of having to die in such numbers from an easily curable disease like diarrhoea. Apparently, these hapless people neither have the means at their disposal to treat the simple malady themselves nor could they attract any timely help or attention from the political and bureaucratic “lords of health” in Kathmandu.

The Jajarkot tragedy now raises a very fundamental issue about the possible attributes of the new constitution being worked out by the Constituent Assembly. How should this constitution be different from the one in existence so that the people of Jajarkot along with the vast populace in the historically deprived rural hinterlands of the country would not have to relive such a tragedy and also can expect to have their just developmental aspirations effectively fulfilled?

Another pertinent concern worth noting is that while such remote districts like Jajarkot have remained so pathetically unequipped, the two previous Maoist ministers for health, first Amik Sherchan followed by Giriraj Mani Pokharel, spent their tenure trumpeting about free health service to the people, obviously in their sinister bid to mislead people into voting for them, even as the local health posts in the district have reportedly been without even the basic medicines. So, another question regarding the new constitution is how to save people from the evil designs of such unscrupulous politicians and instead, vest them with the inalienable authority to manage their own affairs including meeting their health needs.

Presently, the issues being exercised in the minds of the CA members in particular is how to break the country up into several parts, whether along secular or ethnic or linguistic lines; the number of constitutional bodies; military training to the people, and lately, civilian supremacy. But it is difficult to see if the suffering lot of Jajarkot and similarly disadvantaged people elsewhere would be satisfied that the resolution of those issues would prevent, once and for all, the recurrence of such tragic episodes and create conditions for the sustained fulfillment of their basic existential needs and aspirations.

One could probably argue that when the country goes into federal mode, the decision-making apparatus will be closer to the people, located at such places as in Nepalganj or Surkhet to service Jajarkot, for instance. But even under the present “democratic set-up”, there are powerful health related agencies in those places and they have made no difference for the suffering

people of Jajarkot. in the current crisis.

Similarly, Nepal has had a long history of elected politicians at district and village levels for almost half a century, but the vast sums of development money they were entrusted to handle have made little difference in the lives of the people. So, replicating the corrupt politics of Kathmandu in the plurality of the so-called provincial capitals is hardly going to be the answer for people’s needs for better employment, income and overall living conditions. Therefore, the starting point for the framers of Nepal’s next constitution must be to extensively devolve authority to the stakeholders themselves so that they have the inherent and inalienable right to take care of their own destiny.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist.