26 June - 2 July 2015 #764

The Indifferent Republic

Even a massive earthquake can’t shake the concerned authorities into actually being concerned
Foreign Hand

My first clue that the governing elite in this country don’t really give a damn came way back in the 1980s when The Rising Nepal newspaper was my only English language link to the world. Its front page invariably featured the royal family, international news was sparse and the liveliest section was often Letters to the Editor.

Diligent citizens wrote eloquent complaints about the lack of water in the pipes and trash piling up uncollected (some things never change) and frequently signed off with the hopeful phrase ‘we trust the concerned authorities will look into this matter.’

As the garbage piled higher and water-taps stayed dry it dawned on me the concerned authorities everyone pinned their hopes on were simply not concerned, about the trash, water or anything else. Thus began the Hand’s journey of discovery into Bureaucratic Apathy on a Himalayan scale, delving deep into the mindset of those in positions of authority.

The Nepalis I knew and worked with were generous of spirit and caring, my first question was how could these bureaucrats be so different? It seems, in short, whoever joins the civil service somehow mutates into a lower, more cynical breed.

My second question was why none of these jokers ever got fired. ‘If only it were that simple,’ came the mysterious response from between the lines. Most government staff need family networks before even getting hired (or they’d never get the job) and spend the rest of their careers building a web of contacts and strategic alliances that’s more important (to them) than the state they’re supposed to serve. Liaisons are forged and mutual benefit societies established that grow more intricate with time. If all this wasn’t so time-consuming (and financially rewarding) the bureaucrat might find time for other matters, like work. I eventually realised it’s not that the authorities aren’t concerned, rather they’re concerned about all the wrong things.

A mutually agreed impunity combined with exceptionally low expectations encourages this indifference to flourish. Plus, let’s not forget that inept official ignoring the water supply or diverting funds might be the uncle of someone you owe favours to, making your best course of action obvious: do nothing.

The fact that some poor villagers in far-flung districts were swindled out of the promised irrigation canal, road or health-post is far less compelling than protecting uncle. The village is remote, uncle isn’t, and next time it could be your future threatened by dismissal. You’d surely count on your co-workers to cover your back and do nothing then.

But somebody must have cared in the past, I mused, thinking of the beautifully laid-out old quarters of the valley’s towns and cities. Public spouts that delivered water for centuries must have been maintained or they’d dry up, as they have now. Communal areas were incorporated in the planning of every neighbourhood, spaces that would likely be sold on the sly by the concerned authorities these days.

As my journey of discovery degenerated into a morbid muse, overwhelmed by examples to ponder, I couldn’t help noticing this negligent bureaucracy is dominated by Brahmins and Chettris. Coincidence? The higher castes have always used their religiously sanctioned status to lord it over ordinary citizens and gain access to the treasury. As a fallen Catholic, I’m no stranger to chicanery in divine guise but am still impressed by such a devious system that preaches the low castes deserve their poverty and suffering because of sins committed in previous lives. It certainly makes it easy for the elite to shrug their shoulders and pretend they’d like to help, but who can argue with fate?

This high caste sense of entitlement continues to be abused by all the party leaders and their coteries. The Maoist luminaries may be atheist and pretend to be egalitarian but are quick to use the perks of their Brahmin caste, which include the right to pontificate endlessly, act holier-than-thou, and threaten people with hell-fire if they dare disobey.

Whatever caste or party bureaucrats belongs to, they usually adopt the habits of the old feudal elite. This was never more painfully exposed than in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. As aid poured in, the concerned authorities froze, alarmed they were suddenly expected to act swiftly and give away valuable emergency goods to people they don’t care about. Just when the country desperately needed leadership, all party leaders disappeared for a couple of weeks, probably to hide their clue-less faces while plotting to steal a share of the windfall.

The government’s crude attempt to extort customs tax on free donations displays a level of short-sighted greed insulting to both the donors and those waiting for help. Two months on, aid still litters the tarmac at Tribulation Int’l Airport as Customs officials haggle over duty rates. Despite being an old Hand, I must admit this profound level of indifference to fellow countrymen in desperate straits is difficult to fully comprehend, especially when contrasted to the dynamic young Nepalis who threw themselves wholeheartedly into helping those in need.

Some dreamt this disaster would sweep away the old ways and galvanise the politicians into action but all evidence indicates otherwise. Even a massive earthquake can’t shake the concerned authorities into actually being concerned.

Read also:

The disaster is not over, David Seddon

Beureaucracy as usual, Stéphane Huët

Earning back the people’s trust, Tsering Dolker Gurung

Looking for Dor Bahadur Bista, Kunda Dixit

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