Nepal in ruins

In a country flattened by the April 25 earthquake, where soldiers are the new heroes and politicians are more derided than ever, recovery will be slow and painful. Will civil society, which has shown the nation a way out in times of deepest despair, help it come out of the rubble?

Published : May 13, 2015 12:30 IST

At Barpak, a village in Nepal's Gorkha district, at the epicentre of the April 25 earthquake. Survivors rummaging for their belongings in the rummage of what were once their homes, on May 6.

At Barpak, a village in Nepal's Gorkha district, at the epicentre of the April 25 earthquake. Survivors rummaging for their belongings in the rummage of what were once their homes, on May 6.

Nepal’s Rana rulers—whose regime coincided with and was buttressed by British rule in India—were not, it seems, good builders. The iconic Dharahara tower of Kathmandu, which has become a symbol of the April 25 earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had collapsed once before. That was in the Great Earthquake of 1934, measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale. Eighty-one years later, it has crumbled again, killing an unknown number of people who had climbed the slim, nine-storey tower. Other old palaces that had found a new purpose after the Rana regime ended in 1950—such as the national library, the President’s office and other government offices—are said to be unsafe. Gone are many centuries-old temples in the old Durbar Square of the Malla kings conquered by the invading Gorkha army around the same time as the East India Company was coming up to the Himalayas.

“Our history has been erased,” I heard a man in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square say to his friend on the evening of April 25. Before him were piles of rubble of old temples that had been felled, though the temple of the living goddess, Kumari, remained intact. Among the temples that were razed was Kasthmandap, a wooden structure that gave Kathmandu its name. In swirling dust, the police and volunteers were pulling out bodies of dozens of people trapped under it. The temples and palaces in the old squares of Patan and Bhaktapur towns, relics of a lost civilisation, suffered the same fate as Kathmandu, as did small old towns in the foothills of the mountains.

The quake, and the more than one hundred aftershocks, hit the central and western hills and mountains of the rectangle that is Nepal hard. As data on the deaths started to accumulate, it became apparent that destruction in the rural areas was of an altogether higher proportion compared with that in the cities, the centre of media attention in the first few days. As the journalist Thomas Bell wrote, “Despite talk of ‘earthquake preparedness’ the scenarios, plans etc. collapsed… it was expected to be an urban not rural disaster.”

The quake levelled entire villages in the upper hills and mountainous regions of 14 of Nepal’s 75 districts. It left hundreds of thousands of small farmers homeless. As of May 7, according to the Home Ministry, 7,759 people had died, 16,432 were injured. In addition, 542,910 private homes and 25,787 government buildings are fully or partially damaged. Countless head of livestock perished. The earthquake has brought an additional burden of suffering to Nepal’s poor farmers.

Slower economy Landlocked by the two giants, China and India, Nepal has watched its two neighbours’ economies rise without being able to figure out its own growth strategy. Agriculture and industry have not been particularly dynamic. The earthquake occurred after the winter harvest was in. Therefore this years’ agricultural output is not affected. But if the villages are not ready to farm when the monsoon arrives in a few months, the all-important rice harvest will suffer.

Services, the sector that will probably suffer the most, make up 52 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to last year’s data from the Central Bureau of Statistics. As the United Kingdom, the United States, India, and other countries evacuated their citizens from Kathmandu, fear and paranoia rose in proportion and the tourist season came to an abrupt halt. Most hotel bookings were cancelled. The loss of cultural heritage could also do lasting damage. Tourism accounts for less than 5 per cent of Nepal’s GDP, much less than many people think it does or wish it did. Still, the sector employs an estimated half a million people. The areas hit by the quake were popular with tourists, especially the Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara, and the trekking routes further north. “Many real estate developers will go bankrupt and banking will suffer,” said Swarnim Wagle, a member of the National Planning Commission. In the cities, the extent of the damage to realtors and insurance companies is yet to emerge. Then there is the damage caused to the electrical and communication infrastructure. The cracked roads may crumble when the monsoon arrives. In addition, in an energy-starved economy, the quake may have damaged small-scale hydro plants in the mountains and hills. “People’s confidence is shaken,” Wagle said. “As a result, economic activity will slow down.”

The rise of volunteers For the villagers dissatisfied with the political class, the quake has added to the burden of resentment. The delay in getting food and makeshift shelters to the towns and villages, even when reachable by good roads from Kathmandu, remains inexplicable to many, as does the government’s urgency to send back foreign help and helicopters in the middle of the crisis. In the quake-hit villages, it is hard to find anyone who is sympathetic to the political parties and the government.

“We don’t want their money,” Ganesh Bharati, a local politician in Sanghachowk village in Sindhupalchowk district, lamented to this writer. “Can’t they even come to our homes to see the pain we’re in?” He was complaining about a Maoist politician from his district, but he could well have been speaking of the Prime Minister. It took Prime Minister Sushil Koirala 10 days to get out of the capital to witness the damage.

In some areas, the villagers have started blocking roads and forming “struggle committees” to put pressure on the government. Collective action in lonely villages in mountainous terrain is difficult, but Nepal’s recent history shows that it is not impossible. As the dry summer ends and the rain clouds gather, the living conditions will worsen, fuelling further resentment. The villages, then, are left with only two options. They can either try to rebuild a life in the villages or desert them for settlements near roads, towns, district headquarters, or the capital.

Similarly, the opposition, which is now keen to project an image of a united polity tackling the disaster is bound to turn critical soon. Unless the quake miraculously obliterates all memories of grievances, as the relief efforts deepen political differences will sharpen in a society that is divided on caste, class and ethnic lines. Already, there are reports from Gorkha, Sindhupalchowk and other districts about aid efforts leading to tensions in quake-hit communities.

Wagle rejected criticism that the government had been unable to reach most villages. He said that it was just “Internet chatter” that originated mostly from frustrated Nepalis living abroad, who drank cheap wine and cursed the government. These were, he said, people who had never paid taxes and who had probably taken American citizenship. “Yes, there was rage in the villages for the first two days, when the government was disoriented by the enormity of the disaster. A round of relief has reached all affected except those in the most remote of villages,” he said. “Given how corrupt and inept our state is, the rescue efforts are commendable.”

“Of course, if we were a middle-income country and had 300 choppers, rescue would’ve been faster,” he added.

The quake has seen the popularity of the security forces rising, especially that of the Army. The disaster has given the men in uniform an opportunity to offer their humane side and mend the image damaged by the human rights violations during the Maoist insurgency and the 2006 People’s Movement, as has been extensively documented by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and other human rights organisations. The special position that Nepal’s Army enjoys in the country’s politics can be gleaned from public discourse criticising the government’s inefficiency and heaping praise on the Army, as though it were separate from the government. The Army in Nepal now operates without civilian control and is often praised for this, especially when juxtaposed with the police, perceived as “politicised” and therefore more dysfunctional.

The popularity of the country’s politicians was on the decline when the quake struck. Now it has suffered further. Ever since the first Constituent Assembly, elected in 2008, failed to write a constitution, politicians have been scorned and ridiculed in Nepal. The second Assembly, elected in 2013, has fared no better, stuck as it is over the issue of federalism. Negotiations have become complicated with the defeat of the Maoists and the electoral resurgence of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist). Both these parties promised during the elections to consider “identity” when federating the country, but both have gone back on the promise.

Public disaffection has never been so high. There have been instances in the past year where senior politicians were slapped and humiliated in public by irate citizens.

According to Dewan Rai, a journalist with The Kathmandu Post , trust in the political parties has hit a low comparable to 2005, when, in the middle of the Maoist insurgency, King Gyanendra Shah orchestrated a coup with military backing. It led to a popular movement for democracy a year later and Nepal became a republic in 2008. But the political class appears to have missed the lesson, despite its promise to reform itself in 2006 when people just refused to come out in the street to support their agenda. Ultimately, what brought the people out for democracy was not the parties but civil society, which was united for a brief period against autocracy.

In Nepal, civil society means doctors, lawyers, teachers, activists, writers, intellectuals, non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers—in short, “white collar” workers. In the aftermath of the quake, Nepal’s government (and political parties) and civil society have been at odds over the issue of foreign aid. On April 30, the Central Bank issued a directive to all banks and financial institutions with the following instructions:

“Several organisations have been opening accounts and collecting public relief funds during the national emergency following the recent earthquake. These funds must be earmarked and the funds must be transferred to the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.”

From the government’s perspective, this was done to impose accountability. After all, in Wagle’s words, Nepal is run by a democratically elected government accountable to its people. The Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund is more transparent than donor disbursements to INGOs and NGOs. Nepal’s Finance Minister has cited high overhead costs of donor funding, claiming that most of it does not get to the people it is supposed to help.

That has not stopped the NGOs. Nepal is practically a republic of NGOs. There are about 40,000 of them in a country of fewer than 28 million. It has more NGOs per person than doctors, and their number will probably grow.

Overnight, hundreds of volunteer groups have emerged in Kathmandu, in the southern plains, and in other places in the country, to support the quake victims. Individuals, political parties, NGOs, schools, and many other people have stepped in when the government has been slow. These young “do gooders”, coming from well-to-do families, have good networks abroad and can generate funds fast.

One group in my neighbourhood has generated more cash online than the Prime Minister’s Fund. Some found out they could not depend on local supplies, or on the government, or the “relief operation” set up by the union of businesses, and ordered supplies from across the border. They have made thousands of trips in cars and trucks to villages near and far, taking sacks of rice, dal, salt and tarpaulin, and coming back with more information about what is needed. For some, it has been a crash course in the power of politics.

Time will tell whether these volunteer groups have a lasting political impact, or whether it was a blip in the collective consciousness in a crisis. Nepal’s recent history shows that in times of the deepest despair, civil society can show a way out. If this society can see beyond the rubble and understand the inequality and rot in Nepal’s politics that has kept the villages poor and deprived for centuries, then perhaps there is a chance for change.

Gyanu Adhikari is with

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