10 May 2016
The crisis in Nepal
Once again, Nepal appears to be on the brink of leadership change. The past few days have seen frenetic activity, driven by Maoist leader Prachanda’s desire to oust Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli just months after he took charge. While the attempt has been stalled for the moment, it may be only a matter of time before the number-crunchers get to work to forge an alternative coalition in the 601-member Parliament. There is a difference of only 24 seats between Mr. Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and the Nepali Congress. With their 83 seats, the Maoists can always tip the balance. Keeping the confidence of a fragmented Parliament was always going to be a challenge for Mr. Oli. But he(Mr. Oli) finds himself embattled so early in his tenure is also the result of failing to deliver on three important promises. The first is that of a more equitable Constitution and polity, that accommodates the sensitivities of Madhesis, Janjatis and other marginalised groups. The second is that of reversing the estrangement with India. Yes, Mr. Oli has reached out to different groups, and invited the SLMM, or the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha, back for talks after a three-month hiatus. The strain in ties with India has been prevented from worsening, thanks to conciliatory statements from Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa over the weekend. It is on the third, and possibly most pressing, responsibility that Nepal’s government has failed its people entirely: speeding up reconstruction after last year’s earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people. NGOs estimate that only about one per cent of the 7,70,000 destroyed houses have been properly reconstructed; millions are living in damaged, unsafe homes or in temporary shanties. At this rate, another winter may well come and go without children returning to proper schools, and without hospitals acquiring the facilities to serve Nepal’s most wanting. It is a mystery why Mr. Oli’s government has been so lethargic in drawing up a comprehensive plan to spend the billions of dollars committed by the world community.
India too must share some responsibility for the political crisis in Nepal. For the past six months, New Delhi has raised the ante with Kathmandu. New Delhi has criticised Nepal’s Constitution, banding with other countries at the UN Human Rights Council as well as with the European Union to rebuke Nepal’s government. Behind the scenes, Foreign Ministry and PMO officials have expressed their discomfort with Mr. Oli’s leadership and his overtures to China. In fact, it is widely believed in Kathmandu that India played a role in the late Sushil Koirala’s surprise election challenge to Mr. Oli last year and had a hand in Mr. Prachanda’s gambit this month. The Nepali street is particularly conducive to rumours about Indian interference, even if much of this has no basis in fact. Regardless, this is enough reason for New Delhi to quickly adopt a more open and more energetic outreach, one that is aimed at nothing more than the overall progress of the Himalayan republic.
All up in smoke?
Expectedly, tobacco companies are resisting a new regulation that the mandatory pictorial warnings on cigarette packages be made larger. The legal challenge to the new rule is likely to be finally settled in the weeks ahead, but till then, as per the Supreme Court’s directives, the larger warnings must be printed. For now, cartons will have up to 85 per cent of the packet devoted to graphic messaging. Having lost the argument on the health effects of cigarette consumption, as well as passive smoking, cigarette-makers are pleading that tobacco-growers will be adversely affected. Experience in other countries suggests that they are fighting a losing battle. Australia has become something of a shining example for the rest of the world to follow in clamping down on suggestive branding. In 2012, it pioneered a move to have cigarettes sold in logo-free plain cartons to deter smokers. This month, the European Court of Justice backed a measure to cover two-thirds of a cigarette packet with health cautions in the 28 member-states of the European Union. Earlier, the ECJ had prohibited the use of descriptive terms such as “light” and “mild” to differentiate among cigarettes. This was in addition to the mandatory disclosure on cigarette packs of the ingredients. The smoking habit is often picked up by suggestive nudges — through advertising, peer pressure, and cultural signals that associate smoking with hipness, attitude, stress-busting, and so on. Indeed, Canberra’s post-implementation report shows that there has been a statistically significant drop in the prevalence of smoking since packages have gone logo-less.
In tandem with the latest restrictions on how cigarettes are packaged, the EU and the U.S. have clamped down on the sale of electronic cigarettes. In the U.S., e-cigarettes cannot be sold to people under 18 years of age. This is the result of a growing consensus that far from being a harm-free alternative as claimed by industry lobbies, e-cigarettes could sooner or later lure consumers to take up the real thing. Curiously, it was when the new nicotine-based substitute began to make inroads that some tobacco giants were more willing to acknowledge the toxic chemicals and carcinogens released while smoking. However, they continue to pin their hopes on a challenge at the WTO, which they are fighting together with countries that have strong interests in the tobacco crop. That ruling may still be some time away. But the public health campaign must continue apace with the enforcement of extensive curbs on smoking in public spaces. This is an effective way to help break the smoking habit, besides of course protecting bystanders from second-hand smoke. Countries such as India have enforced rules that warnings be affixed in films when someone lights up on screen. There is still some way to go in the business of cracking down on surrogate advertising. Having temporarily won its battle in the Supreme Court on packaging, it is time New Delhi did more to discourage smoking.