TOPICS : Fear and uncertainty in Nepal

Sonny Inbaraj

Though spring is in the air in the Himalayas, there is not much cheer in Nepal — now under emergency rule. The mountain trekkers have failed to arrive in numbers and tourists, that are the lifeblood to the economy of Kathmandu Valley, are staying away from the kingdom out of fear of Maoist rebels who have blockaded the capital. “This is our last chance to make some money before the monsoon rains start in August and trekking spots in the Himalayan range become inaccessible. But we just don’t have enough tourists. They are just too scared,” Raju Lama, a guesthouse owner, told IPS. The number of visitors arriving by air in Nepal last month fell 35 per cent compared with March 2004, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announced last week. It didn’t give the figures for how many tourists arrived. According to the Nepal Tourism Board the number of arrivals by plane fell to 14,001 in February, 43 per cent fewer than the same period last year.

Tourism keeps about 80,000 Nepalis directly employed in the industry, while some 300,000 depend on it indirectly out of a population of 24 million. Last week the Hotel Association of Nepal warned of repercussions in the hospitality sector with the imminent closure of hotels and guesthouses and demanded immediate government assistance. There are about 850 hotels and guesthouses in Nepal offering a total of 45,000 beds. To add to the country’s woes is a 11-day nationwide transport strike organised by Maoist rebels on April 2 to block routes to the capital Kathmandu and other major cities. The blockade was to end on Tuesday, two days before the Nepali New Year. While there is no sign of the strike or its immediate impact in the capital, other centres of population have been paralysed, according to aid workers. They point out that the Maoist blockade has worsened the food situation in remote districts as rural Nepalis who are dependent on market places in big towns and cities are unable to travel from their villages to reach these areas. In the mountainous districts even traditional means of transport, like mules and porters, have stopped moving there due to fear of looting by the rebels.

About 11,000 people have already died due to insurgency in Nepal. The Kathmandu-based rights monitoring group, Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), revealed in its just released ‘Human Rights Year Book 2004’ that more than 2,600 people died in the insurgency last year, with 1,077 killed by the Maoists and 1,604 by government forces. Over 12,000 Nepalis were internally displaced last year but INSEC said most of the displacements went unreported. Last month, United Nations and international agencies warned that Nepal is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis as the fighting between security forces and the Maoists have cut off vital aid supplies and medical help to civilians. Credible reports have emerged in recent weeks that claimed that some women died in childbirth because they were unable to reach medical help. There is a weird combination of fear and ennui in Kathmandu this spring. However, there is collective agreement that the country’s future is uncertain. Media rights activists said the underlying causes of the insurgency are just being ignored. — IPS