Nepal votes in final round of historic polls

A Nepali voter casts her ballot at a polling station during the final round of parliamentary elections in Kathmandu on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2017
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Nepal votes in final round of historic polls

KATMANDU: Nepal votes Thursday in the final round of historic parliamentary elections aimed at drawing a line under years of conflict and political turmoil in the Himalayan country.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed in the capital Katmandu and the volatile southern lowlands for the vote after pre-election violence that has left one dead and dozens injured.
It is the second phase of a watershed election for national and provincial parliaments under a new constitution that represents the culmination of the transition from feudal monarchy to federal democracy following a brutal civil war that ended 11 years ago.
“I’m feeling very happy to cast a vote because it can change the future of our country, which we are expecting,” said Katmandu voter Samita Joshi.
“As a young person I think that it will bring hope and opportunities.”
More than 12.2 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, the first phase of which passed off peacefully last month.
But the south is home to a mosaic of ethnic minorities who say the constitution leaves them politically marginalized, a cause that has sparked bloody protests in recent years.
Political analyst Chandra Kishor Jha said violence could return if the promises of a fairer distribution of power were not met under the new federal system.
“If they cannot fulfil their promises then the groups that have been part of the struggle will not stay quiet. There is possibility of conflict again,” he told AFP.
The vote will establish the country’s first provincial assemblies, devolving power away from a top-heavy central government that has cycled through 10 leaders in the last 11 years.
The newly-elected assemblies will be tasked with naming their provinces, which are currently referred to by number, as well as choosing capitals and negotiating budgets with Katmandu — all sensitive considerations that could rekindle tensions in the ethnically-diverse south.
Years of political turbulence have hampered development in the impoverished Himalayan nation, which is still recovering from a powerful earthquake that hit more than two years ago, killing 9,000 people and destroying over half a million homes.
It took nine years after the end of a decade-long civil war to agree to a new constitution. The charter adopted in 2015 mandated a sweeping overhaul of Nepal’s political system to give greater autonomy to the provinces.
But it also sparked deadly protests in the south by ethnic minority groups who say it leaves them politically marginalized, and have demanded it be changed.
The communist CPN-UML party is expected to sweep the polls, buoyed by its alliance with the main Maoist party comprised of former rebels who fought government forces for a decade.
But the nationalist CPN-UML has strongly opposed amending the constitution to address the demands of ethnic minorities that it views as being more closely aligned with India.
Many in the southern lowlands share close linguistic and cultural ties with Indians across the border.
Nepal’s powerful neighbor to the south has long played the role of big brother in the landlocked country.
But in recent years Katmandu has played diplomatic ping-pong with its two large neighbors, India and China, who use big-ticket infrastructure projects to vie for influence.
Counting of ballot papers from both phases of the elections will begin once polling stations close at 5:00 p.m. (1115 GMT). Results are expected in the next few days.


Delhi holds breath as burning farms herald pollution season

Indian farmers block the train tracks and a station during a protest against the central and state governments' push to clamp down on stubble crop burning in Batala, some 45km from Amritsar, on October 18, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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Delhi holds breath as burning farms herald pollution season

  • Many farmers feel scapegoated for the modern-day problems of India’s fast-growing, chaotic cities
  • Satellite imagery shows countless spot fires already burning in Haryana and Punjab, two breadbasket states bordering Delhi

ISHARGARH, India: Harpal Singh struck a match and watched his fields burn, the acrid smoke drifting toward New Delhi where a lethal smog cocktail is once again intensifying over the world’s most polluted megacity.
Every November, air pollution in northern India reaches levels unimaginable in most parts of the world, forcing schools shut and filling hospital wards with wheezing patients.
As winter descends, cooler air traps car fumes, factory emissions and construction dust close to the ground, fomenting a toxic brew of harmful pollutants that regularly exceed 30 times the World Health Organization safe limit.
The scourge is compounded as farmers like Singh — rushing to ready their fields for next season’s wheat crop — use fire to quickly and cheaply clear their land.
He knows slash-and-burn farming is illegal and that doing so, year after year, helps sicken millions in the Indian capital and beyond.
But local authorities appear powerless to stop it and — looming health crisis or not in Delhi — the narrow window to plant for the winter harvest is closing.
“We have no other choice but to burn the straw,” Singh told AFP in Ishargarh, a village in Haryana state, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of Delhi.
“We know the smoke pollutes the air. But it is the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of the (crop) residue,” the 65-year-old farmer told AFP, as burning straw crackled and popped behind him.

This smoke is already reaching Delhi, bringing a familiar sepia haze and a bad omen for officials wanting to avoid a third straight year of record-setting smog.
Deterrents, such as fines of up to $200 for farmers flouting the law, appear to have limited effect.
Satellite imagery shows countless spot fires already burning in Haryana and Punjab, two breadbasket states bordering Delhi.
S. Narayanan, from Haryana’s State Pollution Control Board, said 300,000 rupees ($4100) in fines had been issued and fires were down 40 percent in some areas.
“But our intention is not only to take punitive action, but to educate the farmers,” he told AFP.
Farmers represent powerful voting blocs in rural states like Haryana and Punjab, and local authorities are reluctant to upset them.
Efforts to persuade farmers, many living below the poverty line, to adopt alternative methods of land clearance have fallen on deaf ears.
Many have balked at suggestions of buying “Happy Seeders” — expensive machines which according to media reports cost at least 150,000 rupees — that sow wheat without needing to dispose of the leftover straw.
The government is offering a subsidy of 50 percent to individuals and 80 percent to groups of farmers to encourage them to use the machines.
“We are already in debt... and we can’t afford even the subsidised machines,” said Karnail Singh, a 60-year-old farmer. He suggested the government pay farmers by the acre not to burn their fields.
Television ads, social media campaigns and meetings at the village level have also had limited success.
Powerful farmers unions say many of the government’s ideas — such as encouraging farmers to sell straw to factories — overlook extra costs imposed on poor rural families.
“Who will bear the cost of transporting the straw? Farmers are also concerned about the pollution, but they are helpless,” said Sucha Singh from Bhartiya Kisan Union, a farmers’ rights group.

Many farmers feel scapegoated for the modern-day problems of India’s fast-growing, chaotic cities.
The WHO in May listed 14 Indian cities in the world’s top 15 with the dirtiest air, with Delhi dubbed the most polluted major center.
“Farmers are blamed for the pollution, but nobody talks about the factories and cars and buses which are the main culprits,” Singh said.
Others are more defiant.
“We are always the soft targets. We will continue to burn stubble. Let the government do what it can,” said another farmer Harbans Singh.
With smoke on the horizon, the Delhi government is squaring off for a fight with its neighbors.
It recently closed its last coal-fired power plant but the city’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal warned of another smog crisis if Punjab and Haryana failed to take “concrete steps” on crop fires.
“The entire region including Delhi will again become (a) gas chamber,” he said on October 12.
“People will again face difficulty in breathing. This is criminal.”