NEPAL'S POVERTY SOWS THE SEEDS OF PROTEST
Two years ago, Nepalis took to the streets to unseat the government of their revered king. Thousands protested state corruption and the government's apparent inability to handle poverty and illiteracy, problems that have put Nepal among the world's poorest nations.
The change was based on politics, with Nepalis demanding more democratic freedoms, but Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala is focusing now on economic change, an area where he remains vulnerable.
Almost a year after Mr. Koirala was elected in May 1991, Nepalis marched again in the capital Kathmandu and civil servants shut down the city with strikes, protesting soaring prices. Many blamed Koirala, who had been forced to devalue the rupee to mirror a similar fiscal move by India, Nepal's largest trade partner.
In August, Koirala appeared to try to forestall further protest by insisting every citizen would benefit from his $4 billion economic plan, which aims to boost the economy over the next five years. Poverty grips Nepal's agriculture-based economy, with almost 60 percent of the country's 19 million people living at or below the poverty line. Nepalese workers earn about $170 a year. Sixty percent of the population is illiterate.
Poverty hits Nepal's women and children the hardest, says Patricia Marin, an official at the United Nations Children`s Fund (UNICEF). The infant mortality rate has decreased over the past five years, but remains high at 70 per 1,000 live births. The mortality rate for mothers during childbirth is twice the average in other Asian countries. Only 34 percent of rural children have access to clean water; in cities the figure is 50 percent.
The problem of Nepali child labor has taken a back seat to UNICEF's more immediate goal of boosting children's ability to survive, Ms. Marin adds, although other groups are involved in easing conditions for child workers. (See story at left.)
Nepalis also hope that Koirala's government will be more tolerant of dissent. Heavy-handed police tactics during public protests two years ago tainted King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in the public's eye, ultimately forcing him to yield absolute power and allow national elections.
But in a July report, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International blamed Koirala for turning a blind eye to the abuse of human rights by security forces.