It is advisable to allow the local governments of the other cities too to decide how they want to celebrate their festivals

Bhaktapur locals must be going gaga over the Supreme Court's interim order on Wednesday to allow the Bisket Jatra to take place, which the District Administration Office (DAO) had tried to stall in the wake of the sudden surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks. The more than weeklong Bisket Jatra, which coincides with the Nepali New Year in Baisakh, could not take place last year due to the pandemic. The festival involves erecting a 55-foot-long lingo, or wooden pole, and pulling a chariot through the narrow lanes of this ancient city. As such, the festival draws large crowds on each of the nine days of celebration. Fearing a spread of the virus in the community, a meeting of the District COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre, chaired by the Bhaktapur DAO, on April 4 had decided to make the jatra a low-key affair without the revelry associated with erecting the lingo, pulling the chariot and hosting the tug-of-war between residents of the two ancient quarters of Bhaktapur. The Supreme Court has, however, revoked the DAO's decision to halt the festival after a Bhaktapur local filed a case challenging it.

The authorities should have anticipated a backlash from the locals as the DAO had taken the decision to scrap the festival unilaterally without consulting members of the guthi (trust) and priests, who organise the festival. The locals see the DAO decision as undermining their culture and traditions, which had led to protests in the city on Tuesday.

Similar protests had erupted last year during the pulling of Rato Machhindranath's chariot in Lalitpur, with the locals defying the local administration's order not to host any religious event to control the virus. The chariot of Rato Machhindranath is taken around Patan city in April, but the lockdown last year kept pushing the date further and further till September, when the religious leaders lost all patience. They then went ahead with the chariot festival without so much as informing the concerned officials, which led to scuffles between the police and the locals.

Following the Supreme Court's interim order, Bhaktapur municipality, locals, members of the guthi and other stakeholders on Wednesday agreed to mark the festival peacefully by following the prescribed health protocols. It is important that the people do so in practice. Let's be frank and admit that Nepal was able to keep the number of infections low last year in the early months of the pandemic largely because the lockdown had strictly prohibited mass gathering of any sort, religious, cultural or others. So while celebrating the festival, Bhaktapur residents would do well to wear a mask at all times, wash their hands regularly and maintain physical distancing. If possible, it would be wise for the locals to observe the festival from their homes and not venture out. The last thing we want is a surge in coronavirus cases immediately after Bisket Jatra, which begins on April 14.

Now that the Supreme Court's interim order has set a precedent, it would be advisable to allow the local governments of the other cities too to decide how they want to celebrate the chariot festivals as long as they agree to abide by the health protocols.

Forest fires

Nepal has witnessed its deadliest wildfires in a decade across the country. The wildfires have not only destroyed the thick forests in the Tarai region and the mid-hills, but also in high-altitude areas, where such blazes hardly occur due to the cold environment. This year's blazes are said to be 14 times larger than those of the last year, according to government officials. Satellite images show the entire country under a blaze with no signs of abating in the near future.

As many as 2,700 wildfires have taken place in various parts of the country since November. November and February are considered to be the driest months because there is no sufficient rainfall or westerly winds arriving in the country. Considering the seriousness of the wildfires, the government has now decided to buy a firefighting helicopter to put out the inferno that has led to poor air quality in the Kathmandu Valley and other parts of the country, too. The government should also launch an inquiry to ascertain why the wildfires have taken place on such a massive scale. Is it a man-made disaster or a natural phenomenon due to the dry season? If it is manmade, we must raise awareness at the grass-roots level, which can be done by the local levels.

A version of this article appears in the print on April 9, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.