Hard lessons

The following article was originally published on 12 May 2015 in Republica. Please click here to be directed to the original post.
According to news reports, the dead bodies are lying under the rubble and in open areas in many places in Gorkha, the epicenter of the April 25 earthquake. Other severely affected remote areas are in the same boat. No government and international community rescue, relief and recovery team has reached some of these places yet, though rescue has largely been completed in more accessible areas like the Kathmandu Valley.
The damage has been colossal from the 7.9 Richter tremor. The second only to the 1934 quake of 8.3 Richter scale, this one has killed nearly 8,000 people. The 6.8 magnitude quake on Tuesday has only compounded things. Many more are still buried under the rubble. Nearly, 16,000 people have been hurt and nearly 7 million have been directly affected by the quake.
 This massive convulsion has made three things unequivocally clear. One, managing the aftermath of a major disaster is extremely difficult. Two, the government proved ham-handed in handling this catastrophe. Three, some businessmen, organizations and individuals shamelessly sought to profit from the misery of the disaster victims.Managing the impact of a catastrophe of this scale is always difficult, even for the richest countries. The United States had been slammed severely for its incompetence in handling the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though less, the British government was not spared when flood inundated Somerset last year.Naturally, it was not easy for the government of Nepal to tackle competently the impact of such a gargantuan earthquake. It was so not only because the government is incompetent, but also because it does not have the resources and equipment to do the job effectivelyand because most of the affected areas are remote without easy access.Consequently, there is wide public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance where it has reached and anger among people where it has not. Even the better-resourced and equipped international community is yet to reach those remote areas for rescue and relief. Owing to this, many people who could be rescued have died and those who survived the immediate impact are now dying of hunger, cold and disease.

It makes me sad but does not surprise me. Rich, accessible and privileged areas always get the first priority in good times as well as bad.

What, however, baffled me is this: Despite the knowledge that Nepal is in a seismically active zone and despite the requiring measures for disaster preparedness and mitigation to minimize the loss of life and property, the government had neglected its duty. It did not have in stock tents, food, and equipment to manage such crises and a mechanism to manage rescue, relief and recovery on the ground.

The problem is partly political and partly technical. Politics has been volatile for decades and local level elections have postponed for over a decade. There are no local representatives to manage rescue, relief and recovery at the grassroots. As a result, the main political parties jockeyed for advantage at the national and local level after the trembler struck, while letting people die lacking rescue and relief.

Sure, the parties in power — Nepali Congress and the CPN (UML) — are more culpable for this political paralysis now. They should have done what was right for the disaster victims and for the country. However, the opposition parties, mainly the UCPN (Maoist), which have prolonged the transition and prevented local level elections are almost equally guilty.

Personally, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could not show leadership when it was needed most. I have no qualms that he learned about the quake from his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. India has communication systems that we do not have. Often the United States and Russia tell their friends around the world what is happening in their neighborhood, because they have the technical resources to find it out before anybody else.

However, Koirala failed to galvanize the country after he learned of the catastrophe. He did not fly to Kathmandu the same day he heard about it through Delhi or Kolkata. Once in Nepal, he did not address the nation asking government agencies and ordinary people to do their best to save lives. He did not issue a stern warning that those found stealing or looting would face aggressive justice.

Bureaucracy displayed a mixed performance at best. The uniformed bureaucracy — the army, armed police and community police — earned accolades from the victims and wider public alike. They are largely treated as heroes and saviors now, and rightly so. They were in the front line, doing the hard work of rescuing the victims even with their bare hands.

Nonetheless, the civilian bureaucracy performed poorly. The news of unfortunate discord between the chief secretary and home secretary spilled out in the media, making clear that the central administration was hobbled by turf war. Chief district officers, who head of local disaster relief committees, did not display the moral courage to do the right thing at the right time.

Unfortunately, they decided to hold the coattails of the local political leaders, who were not even elected, and the victims needlessly suffered.

While the government bared its weaknesses, some in the private sector and some individuals did not present an honorable conduct, either. Reportedly, relief materials were found hidden in private godowns of some noted business houses in Kathmandu and Bhairahawa. Some thugs looted relief materials for personal profit. And some non-governmental organizations were caught selling such stuffs. Many more such cases might not have come to light at all.

What does it show?

It shows, as a society, we not only suffer from economic poverty, which we definitely do; we also suffer from the poverty of commitment and morality. We may blame each other, but we are all in it together.

Fortunately, I did not have to rely on the government, the private sector or non-governmental organizations to deliver my support to the earthquake victims. I asked my son who lives in Kathmandu to buy relief materials and medicine locally and distribute directly, which he did. Those who depended on the government or private parties to channel their support were sorely disappointed.

It is said development starts in our head — in our attitude. Unless we change our attitude, unless we look ourselves in the mirror before criticizing others, and unless we build trust between our government and us and among ourselves as people, we will remain a poor and underdeveloped society.

In this context, the commitment paper embraced by the Constituent Assembly is a complete sham. It shows the bankruptcy of our leaders’ vision and imagination. It is a means to pull wool over the victims’ eyes. Where is the money? Nepal does not have it. We will be lucky if one-fourth of the external pledge translates into real cash. Besides, have our politicians ever kept their commitment?

Practically speaking, we ordinary people should seek to rebuild our own lives, take necessary precautions — like building quake-resistant houses and selecting a stable lands to build– so we do not suffer the same way next time. Do not expect much from the government that is both poor and corrupt. If you want government to be responsive to your needs, learn to hold it accountable for its failure.


Deekshya Nakarmi

Deekshya Nakarmi is Communications and Outreach Assistant at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation. She is a student of Development Studies.


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