8-14 May 2015 #757


SHORT-TERM: emergency food, medicine and shelter, MEDIUM TERM: Semi-permanent housing, seeds for planting season, LONGTERM: Reconstruction, jobs

In all the criticism about the slow government response to the 25 April earthquake, what many forget is that governance in Nepal was a disaster zone even before the earthquake. Slow delivery of services, lack of coordination, mismanagement, ad hoc decisions and corruption have been the hallmarks of our soft state. Despite the restoration of democracy and regular elections, accountability has somehow always fallen between the cracks. Leaders who traditionally thrived on patronage have felt no need for performance-based legitimacy.

Photo: Kunda Dixit

Although it can’t be an excuse, poor management of earthquake relief was a given. Why were we even surprised? How could we expect the Nepali state to become the epitome of efficient management and speedy delivery overnight, just because there was an earthquake? In an ideal state, elected leaders would be forced to be decisive, to prioritise and act to ameliorate the massive suffering caused by this disaster. It would have streamlined procedures to receive maximum assistance instead of creating hurdles, it would have expedited delivery of urgent medical and food supplies to remote areas instead of letting it pile up at the airport, it would have encouraged donations to pour in instead of creating obstacles and obfuscation.

Instead, what we saw were politicians and bureaucrats showing the same inertia and lethargy as they have during ‘normal’ times. They pushed paper, waited for rubber stamps and ‘clearance from higher-up authorities’ as if it was just another humdrum day in our banana republic. All right, we’ll say it: the bureaucratic delays in the initial days after the quake cost lives. The earthquake killed people, red tape killed many of the survivors.

Then there are the politicians. There are? We haven’t seen them since the earthquake. This would have been a time for the top leaders, ministers, elected members of the Constituent Assembly, to be observed to be doing something. Politicians thrive during times of disasters to demonstrate their crisis management skills. Even cynical politicians will “never let a serious crisis go to waste” as former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once notoriously put it. Here in post-earthquake Nepal we didn’t even see many examples of leaders exhibiting the energy to even do token relief. The Prime Minister toured Sindhupalchok by air 10 days after the earthquake, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been holed up in a secluded villa in Man Bhavan for the past week, and only briefly gate-crashed a relief distribution event organised by the Guru Dwara. The President, it must be said, shunned media attention and made low-key personal visits to ruins of Kathmandu’s historic heart.

And when the politicians and the government did act decisively, it was to spread even more hopelessness and confusion. Just like the famously absurd sound bite by a palace official after the royal massacre in 2001 about it having been caused by the “accidental discharge of an automatic weapon” this time too, officials were busy shooting themselves in the foot every time they opened their mouths.

The Central Bank issued a dreadful statement that all earthquake aid had to be channeled through the Prime Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund (‘otherwise they will be seized’) that immediately halted most emergency cash donations from abroad. The PMO tried to clarify it was only for NGOs set up after 25 April for earthquake relief, but its interpretation sowed even more confusion. Then some wiseguy in government said we don’t need any more aid. Not to be outdone, another smartass told foreign rescue workers “we don’t need you anymore we can handle it ourselves”. The government is the subject of ridicule across the world, it is squandering the goodwill that Nepal and Nepalis command internationally – testament to which is the tremendous and prompt delivery of relief flights.

To be sure, this was a disaster that would have overwhelmed even the most efficient, best-prepared and well-endowed government. The impact zone is vast and rugged, settlements are widely scattered, you’d need hundreds of helicopters to reach every nook and cranny where there are survivors in dire need of emergency relief.  And although it started slow, there are signs that the government is getting its act together in streamlining customs and expediting delivery of supplies. The Army and Armed Police together have 120,000 personnel deployed in the 12 districts, and by all accounts have gone beyond the call of duty, despite their own family tragedies, in search, rescue and ferrying supplies. Civil society, individuals, overseas Nepalis and the private sector have stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Nepal government has got its work cut out. In the short-term there is still the need to get emergency food, medicine and shelter to the areas where they are most needed. In the medium term, we will have to turn our attention to semi-permanent housing as well help with seeds for the planting season as the rainy season approaches. This is of vital importance so subsistence farmers who have lost their granaries have something to eat in the coming year and will not have to depend on outside food aid. Then there is the colossal need for reconstruction of the 300,000 homes and 15,000 schools that have been destroyed.

This needs a Marshall Plan type movement with seamless coordination between the government, local bodies, the international community, the UN and the multilateral agencies. By now we have plenty of lessons learnt from Haiti to Haiyan about how to best manage the rehabilitation of vast populations. No two countries are alike, but there are red flags about where things went dreadfully wrong elsewhere, and why things worked brilliantly in places.

Minister of Supplies Sunil Thapa has decades of experience handling emergencies around the world for UNHCR. Similarly, we have many Nepalis recently retired from UN relief agencies, or are about to do so, whose expertise and experience we can tap. The legislation to set up a Disaster Management Authority that has been languishing for five years now needs to be speeded up.

But more than anything else, we in Nepal need to turn this tectonic shift into a paradigm shift in the way we govern ourselves, how we plan, move towards a renewable energy economy, be more self-sufficient, enforce urban planning, zoning and safe housing regulations, and decentralise decision-making.

Nepal has turned into a no-man’s land because of overseas out migration. Village after village devastated by the earthquake have only women, children and the elderly. Post-earthquake reconstruction will need able-bodied men, and this could be an opportunity to stem the tide of migration by offering well-paying jobs at home, and to make it worthwhile for others already abroad to return.

Nepalis are used to hardships. We have a tremendous sense of national pride and a sense of self-worth. Our community ties bind us together and offer hope and solidarity in this time of great need. Now our national leadership must help the people who elected them so they can get back on their feet again.

Read also:

Shaking things up, Editorial

Learning from disasters, Vinod Thomas

A more responsive state, David Seddon

Earning back the people’s trust, Tsering Dolker Gurung

As remote as Kathmandu

Life after deaths, Om Astha Rai

With a little help, Stéphane Huët

Bright lights on a dark day, Mark Zimmerman

Aftershocks in a migrant economy, Mallika Aryal

Sindhupalchok’s sorrow, Bhrikuti Rai

Rising from the rubble, Anurag Acharya  

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