31 Oct - 6 Nov 2014 #730

Better safe than sorry

To clean up Kathmandu airport we first have to clean up Nepal’s politics

What do the mostly avoidable loss of life in the Annapurna blizzard this month, the death of 75 people in highway accidents over the Dasain-Tihar holidays, and Tribhuvan International Airport being voted the third worst airport in the world have in common?

Anthropologists who have studied Nepali culture point out that the lack of preparedness and sloppy, slow response to disasters stem from our national trait of not doing today what we can do tomorrow. We sit around hoping for the best, demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of modern technology, and exhibit a fatalistic, lackadaisical ke garne attitude. We can’t do anything about whatever misfortune may befall us in this life, it seems, because it was all preordained by our behaviour in a previous one. Most Nepalis find it hard to understand that one must craft one’s own destiny, that nothing is predetermined.

This festival season, at least 75 people were killed when overloaded buses and micros fell off rough mountain roads that are euphemistically called ‘highways’. Police in Nuwakot who were supposed to be on alert to prevent overloading were quoted by a radio station blaming overloading, and didn’t see the irony in that statement. In Okhaldhunga, a jeep that can carry only six passengers was carrying 25. Some had brake failures, one couldn’t negotiate a steep incline and rolled backwards into a precipice. No accident has just a single cause, but overloading was a factor in most of the six mishaps in the past three weeks.

Road traffic accidents have now become one of the biggest killers of children and young men and women in Nepal . More than 6,000 people were killed on Nepal’s roads between 2010 to 2013, the casualty rate far surpassing the annual fatalities during the conflict. Nepal’s highways are the most dangerous in the world with nearly 1,700 deaths per year for every 100,000 vehicles. The chance of a crash here is 100 times higher than in Japan, and 10 times higher than even India.

We have analysed the blizzard disaster in the Annapurnas in this space in the last two issues, and the consensus is that an early weather warning system would have saved lives. Trekking and mountaineering groups with satellite phones took proper precautions, others who didn’t know of the approaching storm were caught off guard or underestimated its ferocity. Simple measures like marking trails with sticks, building shelters and erecting mobile phone towers along trekking routes don't cost much and can save lives. It has just come to light that the nine porters who died on Niwas Pass in Dolpo on 14 October probably had carbon monoxide poisoning as they slept inside their tents in the blizzard.

The government, in typical kneejerk and reactive fashion to cover up its omissions, has done precisely what we said it shouldn't: make more rules that are virtually unenforceable. Insisting on every group having guides when there is no program to train them is tokenism, and requiring trekkers to have GPS systems is overkill. Like the TIMS card, this will add another layer of futile rules.

It should instead expedite ratification by parliament of the bill to form a Commission on Disaster Management which has been languishing for five years because of turf battles between ministries. Setting up a Commission will not prevent fatalities in future disasters, but it is a first step. This is especially necessary because we need to be prepared for something that can’t be prevented and will one day surely come: a great earthquake in central Nepal. Let’s not blame nature, the real disaster here is the lack of political will to be prepared before and provide prompt relief after.

The other item of news which was a source of national embarrassment was that Kathmandu airport has been voted the third worst airport in the world. The Internet is full of silly and unverifiable lists like that, and of course it went viral in social media. But there is no denying that Nepal’s international gateway is a shameful symbol of everything that is wrong with this country. It is a hotbed of smuggling, trafficking and corruption. Bureaucrats and police are known to hand over fat pre-paid stashes of cash to be posted there. The last thing in the mind of the Authority which manages the airport is to keep the airport’s toilets clean, its luggage carousels in working order, or its immigration lines short. Waiting two hours after a plane lands to get out of an airport, as many passengers did this week, is a national embarrassment and gives a very poor first impression.

Like disasters that can be prevented, a filthy airport is a symptom of governance failure, institutionalised corruption and a culture of fatalism. To clean up Kathmandu airport we first have to clean up Nepal’s politics.     

Read also:

Walking with the times, Kunda Dixit

Post-mortem of a tragedy, Editorial

After the storm, Kunda Dixit

Go tell in on the mountain, Subina Shrestha

Man made disasters, Editorial

Highways of death, Sunir Pandey

Nepal's highways of death, Sunir Pandey

Road kill, Duncan Maru

Hudhud and the Himalaya

World’s 3rd worstest airport