A terrible year for Nepal is coming to end but the new year shows no signs of change – or hope. The winter has arrived, and many poor Nepalis are freezing in the hills, their lives devastated by the earthquake in April. After eight months of haggling over a bill to set up a “reconstruction authority” to handle the aid money meant for earthquake survivors, the government finally passed it this month. But progress is painfully slow, and everyday, the newspapers carry stories about earthquake victims dying in the hills from the cold. So far, the  $4 billion pledged by donors lies unspent. The government’s only response has been to announce plans to erect a monument at the epicentre of the earthquake in Gorkha district. The irony in this sorry saga is that the Nepal government, in the days after the earthquakes, appealed for funds to be sent to it rather than the non-governmental organisations, claiming it could manage them better.

Life is hardly easier elsewhere. From the operation theatre to the kitchen, the blockade on the Indian-Nepal border, now in its fourth month, has disrupted lives. While the Nepalese and Indian governments trade allegations on who is causing the blockade, the plight of the poor keeps getting worse.

Uncertain times

Because of fresh supplies being disrupted, black market is rampant. These are the best of times for the unscrupulous, which includes the government which retains a monopoly on the supply of petroleum products. You can get petrol for three times the price in Kathmandu anytime. But the scarcity that has hurt the most is that of cooking gas. You can get a cylinder in the black market for seven times the usual price. Not everyone can afford it. Many families now cook at least parts of a meal using firewood, an option not available for hundreds of thousands of migrant students and labourers who live in single room tenements in Kathmandu. These days, the terror of earthquake has been replaced by the terror of uncertainty – how would we cope if the blockade continues longer?

To add insult to the injury of the blockade, for about 12 hours a day, there is no electricity. And when the electricity supply is resumed, people resort to using electric stoves, in most neighbourhoods, making the transformers explode from the surge every now and then. It usually takes a few days or longer for them to be fixed. That duration is likely to get longer as electrical equipment, too, is imported from India. With no cooking gas, or electricity, everyone except the very rich – who have installed power generators of their own or enough rechargeable batteries – are feeling the pain.

Although the disruption in everyday life can be managed with change in lifestyles, as millions of Nepalis have done, emergencies are a different matter. According to senior doctors, the hospitals are forced to suspend many emergency operations because of lack of medicines and other supplies. This too has an impact on all age-groups, from infants to old people.

A political disaster

Meanwhile, talks between big parties and the protesters – who comprise of Madhesis living in districts bordering India, as well as indigenous liberals who feel the new constitution is more conservative than the interim constitution it replaced – have not succeeded. Nepal’s "nationalist" government believes that all they have to do is appease Delhi for the protests to go away – an insulting proposition which assumes the people of Nepal have no say in the matter and the protests are all India’s doing. For example, Nepal’s foreign minister Kamal Thapa, currently on a trip to China, is supposed to have left the draft of a possible agreement at the offices of Indian foreign minister, which then was passed on to the Nepali protesters, who rejected it as too little too late. Despite the rituals of talks, there has been little progress in arriving at a political settlement to address the crisis.

The government’s plans appear to be to tire out the protests, and where possible use overwhelming police force to suppress them. The use of force, however, isn’t possible at the no man’s land – the preferred choice of venue for the protests.

Everything suggests that the blockade, and the turmoil in Nepal, won’t be over until there is a political settlement in Kathmandu. Both the Nepali protesters, and the Indian government will ensure that. The settlement, however, can only happen when there is a genuine dialogue between the parties that passed the constitution and the parties who opposed the process all along the way, and an understanding is reached. This is not going to be easy.

The current crop in the government is dominated by old players skeptical of political changes in Nepal over the last decade – secularism, republicanism, and federalism, the three pillars of the new order. It also retains particular distaste for affirmative action to make Nepali democracy – currently dominated by high caste men -- more inclusive of the diverse ethnic groups. To make matters worse, the one-time communist Prime Minister KP Oli’s claim to fame was to master the art of disparaging those who argued for change in Nepali politics in the last decade. Although, to the detriment of the nation, he did not have time to complete high school, he makes full use of the caustic wit he is endowed with to mock the genuine grievances of the protesters.

At the moment, negotiations are stuck over revision to the boundaries of the newly created federal states, as well as safeguarding fundamental democratic principles, such as that of one man one vote, and gender equality in the new constitution. It is virtually certain that intense political rivalries in Nepal are going to linger on, especially over how to implement the new constitution.

The earthquake killed about 9,000 and injured many more. Over 50 have already been killed during protests (most of them Madhesis, killed by the police during demonstrations), and no doubt the humanitarian disaster since the blockade has taken untold number of lives. One only hopes that in 2016 the government and the protesters keep it civil and learn to respect life more.