Grapes of wrath
While the protests by others over Thursday night’s hikes in petroleum prices have subsided, students are not showing any letup. On Sunday alone, students affiliated to eight different political parties staged protests across the nation, demanding a reversal of the decision. In the ensuing clashes with police in the Kathmandu Valley, at least 30 students were injured, and a number of them arrested. This time around the prices of petrol, diesel and kerosene were raised by rupees five each, and as a result, petrol now costs Rs.67 a litre (a rise of over eight per cent), diesel Rs. 46 (over 12 per cent), kerosene Rs.39 (nearly 15 per cent), and air turbine fuel Rs. 53 (over 10 per cent). As always, the Nepal Oil Corporation cited heavy losses due to the rise in the world oil prices, and it claims that, even after the latest adjustments, each day it is losing one million rupees.
In recent months the prices of petroleum products have gone up considerably in the international market. Obviously, the government cannot go on subsidising these imports, which account for a large chunk of its total import bills. Over several months before the February 1 royal takeover, petroleum prices had been raised on three occasions. The royal government reduced the price of kerosene by two rupees from Rs. 36 to Rs. 34, but at the same time removing the subsidised distribution of kerosene, and it cut the price per cylinder of cooking gas from Rs.850 to Rs.800, only to hike it by Rs.200 to Rs.900 soon afterward. Another equally important reason why the government cannot cut the oil prices is its commitment to donors such as IMF to phase out subsidy. But all this cannot lessen the need for the government to implement internal reforms aimed at cutting inefficiency, corruption and leakage at all levels. But not much has happened in this direction. Still, there is a powerful case for providing some sort of subsidy in kerosene, a major cooking fuel of the poor, in a society where the gap between rich and poor is far too wide. On their part, the protesters should also consider the government’s compulsions and focus their demands on areas where things could really be improved. But part of the protests are political, fuelled by the sense of outrage at the suspension, to use a mild term, of democracy.