Why are the urban Nepali youths taking to the streets amid the Covid-19 crisis?
Those in power espy conspiracies behind the ongoing youth protests that kicked off on June 9. On that day, around 500-600 people, most of them youths, had gathered near the prime minister’s official residence in Baluwatar to vent their ire at the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and reports of rampant corruption in the name of pandemic control.
They were gathered there peacefully, and were maintaining social distance while doing so. Yet the police used force to disperse them as they were in violation of the lockdown rule stipulating that no more than 25 people may gather at one place. The pictures of peaceful protestors being hosed down by water canons and being carted off in police vans had the predictable effect of instigating further protests.
“It can be taken as a new civil society movement of intellectual youths who are not associated with any political party,” says political analyst Shyam Shrestha. “They are helping expose government inefficiencies in the handling of the Covid-19 crisis.” For him, the protests hint of a sizeable youth population that is away from day-to-day politics but is closely following what’s happening in the country. The slogan ‘Enough is enough’ reflects, in his view, the increasing intolerance of the youths with government incompetence and corruption in this time of national crisis. “The youth agendas are logical and valid,” Shrestha adds.
Among the protestors’ demands: transparency in the government expenses on Covid-19 control including on the purchase of medical supplies, improving the state of quarantine facilities, and increasing the frequency of PCR testing. Notably, they not only criticize the government but also appreciate its efforts to bring back the lost territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura.
Shame on Congress
The young protestors have hit the streets at a time the Nepali Congress (NC) has been panned for its ineffective role as the main opposition. The party has been limited to issuing press statements instead of doing anything substantial to make the government answerable. “These agenda should have been raised by the NC as an opposition party,” adds Shrestha. He says the new movement “is a slap on the face of Congress leaders and signals the emergence of a new opposition.” According to him, the government has failed to handle the pandemic despite no dearth of resources.
Pradeep Poudel, a youth NC leader, sees the current movement as a sign that even the supposedly apolitical youths are fully aware of the country’s situation. “In the past, youth wings of opposition parties used to take to the streets to protest government wrongdoing. This time another force has taken up the mantle,” he says. The agenda raised by these youths are genuine, he reckons. “The government cannot dismiss their impartial demands.”
Outside Kathmandu, there have been protests in Pokhara, Biratnagar, Birgunj, Hetauda, and Biratnagar. Small-scale protests have also been held in various district headquarters. Refuting claims of its involvement, the Bibeksheel Party has clarified that its members have been involved only on an individual basis. During the protests, some Bibeksheel Party leaders were seen on the streets.
The protests had started at the initiative of a Facebook group named ‘COVID-19, Nepal: Enough is Enough’, which quickly grew from a couple of hundred to around 200,000 members in a matter of a week. “We do not have any political motive. When the government addresses our demands, we will stop protesting and return to our normal lives,” says Bibash Pokharel, a protestor. “It was the government mishandling of Covid-19 that prompted us to come to the streets.”
No stopping us
The youths are outraged by the inefficiency seen in managing the pandemic, and have charged the government of wasting five months without doing anything substantive. “The government has been unable to ensure good quarantine facilities, and the management of the people returning from abroad has been an absolute mess,” he adds. Pokharel and his fellow protestors reckon the prime minister’s remarks in the parliament downplaying Covid-19 risks worsened the situation.
There are concerns such as mass gatherings could lead to an alarming growth in the number of Covid-19 cases, and the government has urged protestors not to organize them. It provisioned for a fine of up to Rs 600 or up to six months in jail for those found violating lockdown rules. Leaders and cadres of the ruling Nepal Communist Party claim the protests are aimed at toppling the government.
Paurakh Karki, another youth protestor, responds that they have no interest in politics. “We just want to do away with pervasive corruption.” he clarifies. “It is not government change but social change that we seek.”
The youth activists we talked to said that the protests would continue so long as they didn’t see tangible improvements in the state’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.