Nepali Times
Economic Sense
Managing disaster


In the US this Beed always loved to hear the India-China comparison. Most people would cite the example of the recent floods in Mumbai and talk about how long it would take India, with its poor infrastructure, to catch up with China. There was a lot of ridicule in response to the Mumbai floods, both about the government and the place per se. The aftermath of Katrina perhaps has made many Americans think twice. Natural calamities can happen anywhere at anytime and likely all governments take time to assess and respond. The tv footage of the Gulf Coast reminds all of us that nature can play havoc and even the US government can do little against it.

The way people have suffered in this disaster is unprecedented especially in a country where money is not a problem. The government has enough resources to fight many wars miles away from its own territory. However, in any nation the people at the bottom of the pyramid always suffer. Every country has its own Western Karnalis, the Bajhangs and the Bajuras, that federal governments sitting in urbane settings forget to think about.

It is also always important to understand that beyond a certain point, monetisation becomes immaterial, so does governance. The footage of people ransacking stores for necessities or simply to amass wealth also reminds us about the fundamentals: who owns the nation's resources, who can use them and who can profit from them. This event also showed clearly that in dire circumstances the have-nots can go all the way to fulfil their basic needs, even to the point of raising arms. Therefore, when we examine conflicts we also need to probe the economic compulsions underlying armed struggles. The lives of the people living below the poverty line do not have much value.

This event has also demonstrated that people are so absorbed in their own lives that it takes them quite a while to fathom the impact the disaster made in the lives of many. Initially, it is seen as just another news event in another part of one's country, then people think 'at least it is not in my city' and only after does the 'human' come clear and people realise this tragedy affected many lives!

Katrina has come as a subtle reminder to the world's richest nation that at times certain slippages take place. With such monetary power it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything and everything can be bought but nature constantly reminds us it cannot. Thus, economics has to consider much more than monetisation, GDPs and GNPs.

Any such devastating event, be it last year's Tsunami, Katrina this year or the earthquakes in Iran or Bhuj, provides us the constant reminder to question oneself. What if, god forbid, something happens? Do we have plans? Do the plans work? How would essential supplies be distributed? How would we seek help from other countries? Is there logic in the practice still seen in traditional societies of storing food grains and other necessary edibles in one's house? Can we imagine the public health and emergency response system we need to be investing in?

Everyone ponders such issues whenever a natural disaster occurs-it is perhaps just the normal human reaction. However, it is important to be able to learn from such events. Surely with Katrina the lesson is that even if you are a superpower, nature can always throw your reactions and plans out of gear.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)