HUMAN AND ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY
According to Homosociety, the Nepalese population continues to record a constant increase, almost entirely due to the positive natural balance (2, 3 % in 1996); according to an estimate, in 1998 the residents were equal to a total of 22. 847. 000. The altitude factor and the nature of the soil condition the distribution of the population: four fifths of it are allocated, in an almost equal measure, in the Terai and in the hilly areas, the remainder in the valleys or scattered in the mountain belt. Nothing has changed in the last decades in the urban structure, and the largest and only conurbation in the country remains that formed by the capital, Kathmandu, and its two satellite centers of Patan and Bhadgaon; the other centers, with the exception of Biratnagar, host less than 50. 000 people.
The economy is very poor and has characters of serious backwardness; GDP grows to a lesser extent than the increase in the population, so that the percentage of those living below the poverty line is always higher. In 1996 the government attempted to initiate a neoliberal economic policy, partly privatizing the industry (however foreign investors have not yet entered the market), and launched a product diversification program. Despite this, agriculture and livestock remain the main activities, however practiced with archaic techniques, in plots of family size, and always subject to the risks associated with the variable frequency of monsoon rains.
The industry is blocked by the lack of energy and efficient connections with the large Indian or Chinese market centers. It contributes 21 % to the formation of GDP and is mostly represented by manufacturing activities of an artisanal type, such as the manufacture of fabrics and carpets (the latter make up about half of the revenue from exports).
Tourism has gradually been developing (about 350. 000 visitors in 1996, three times more than in 1980), put forward both by the possibility of hiking and mountain climbing offered by the Himalayan mountains, both ethnic and cultural characteristics of the country, yet not altered by contact with stronger and more intrusive cultures. Religious tourism is also important, because the center of Lumbini, considered the birthplace of Buddha, is a destination for frequent pilgrimages.
Any attempt to improve the economic situation and the standard of living of the Nepal, which is one of the poorest and most backward states in the world, has so far not achieved lasting results, and the country largely depends on the aid of international organizations for its survival. The hopes for development are largely linked to its substantial hydroelectric resources (it is estimated that the country possesses the 3, 5 % of the hydroelectric potential of the entire planet), whose start value in the near future will make it not only independent in the energy profile, but also an energy supplier to neighboring India.
There are numerous projects and works in progress to increase the hydroelectric exploitation of Nepalese rivers, which already supply 96 % of the 908 million kWh produced; these include the Arun III dam, financed by the World Bank and for which an annual production of approximately 1 billion kWh is expected, and a series of new dams in the Karnali region, for a total of 40 billion kWh.
The road network is insufficient (9,933 km), asphalted only in a small part (3435 km), and subject to continuous interruptions due to landslides or climatic events. The main arteries are those that lead from the capital to India; only one asphalted road reaches Tibet. There are also two short railway lines that connect two centers of the plain with the Indian network. Kathmandu airport registers considerable traffic, especially in the tourist season, and some small private airlines ensure connections between the capital and base camps for excursions in the Himalayan range.
The transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy (sanctioned by the new Constitution of 1990) opened an intense political phase, characterized by the difficulty of the parties to establish stable government alliances and to initiate a policy of reforms that would make it possible to improve the dramatic economic conditions of the country, among the poorest in the world. The alliance between the opposition forces, in fact, turned out to be decisive in starting democratization, once the objective was reached, it failed, and the new institutional set-up was unable to guarantee political stability.
The elections of May 1991 marked the victory of the Nepali Congress Party (NCP), whose leader, GP Koirala, was appointed prime minister. Initially placed in central positions, the government slowly moved to the right: it rehabilitated the monarchy, avoided any purge of the military and administrative apparatus and launched a liberal economic policy which, causing a general increase in the cost of living, created a strong social discontent.. The progressive weakening of the executive, due among other things to its inability to overcome traditional methods of power management based on nepotism and corruption, culminated in the crisis of the summer of 1994 and in the subsequent defeat of the NCP in the early elections held in November. The Communist Party (Unified Marxist-Leninist, UML) won the largest number of seats and its leader, MM Adikari, was called to lead a minority government. While undertaking to continue the economic liberalization policy of his predecessor, Adikari set among the executive’s objectives the study of an agrarian reform and the launch of a vast regional development program. Opposed by the opposition, which had found common ground in the criticism of the economic program, Adikari was forced to resign and in 1995 he was replaced by a center-right government, monopolized by the NCP and led by SB Deuba.
Undermined by internal conflicts, the new majority did not actually succeed in giving stability to the country and in the following years sudden changes in alliances continued, which produced a serious impasse in the political system, effectively paralyzing any attempt at reform.
After the fall of the Deuba government (1997), a government based on an unprecedented alliance between the communist party and right-wing forces (March-October 1997), a new center-right government (October 1997- April 1998) and a minority government led again by Koirala with the external support of the Communist Party. The situation remained extremely precarious. A new government crisis occurred in December 1998, following the withdrawal of the Communists, and in January 1999 Koirala dissolved Parliament and called new elections.
Held in May, the consultations sanctioned the victory of the NCP which obtained the absolute majority of seats (110 out of 205), against 68 won by the communists. The leadership of the executive was assumed by KP Bhattarai, replaced in March 2000 by Koirala.
On the international level, the traditional foreign policy of equilibrium between Beijing and New Delhi continued in recent years; with the latter an agreement was reached in February 1996 for the joint exploitation of the Mahakali river basin. On the other hand, relations with Bhutan remained critical in the face of the latter’s repeated refusal to allow the repatriation of refugees of Nepalese origin who took refuge in Nepal to escape persecution.