Digging out of the rubble: National reconstruction in Nepal requires a constitution and local elections

From The Times of India (30 April, 2015)

Nepal was about getting ready for political normalisation and economic revival after two decades of conflict and political chaos when the Great Earthquake of 2015 struck.

There has been a diversion, with the focus now on the urgent task of rescue and recovery, targeted at the devastated midhills of east-central Nepal. Thereafter, there will be the challenge of constructing tens of thousands houses, bringing back services, and restoration of hundreds of shrines and historic monuments.

Seismologists have long predicted that the ‘big one’ was overdue, given the writhing tectonics underneath where the subcontinental plate burrows into the Tibetan plateau. A slippage occurs every 70-90 years in this stretch of the Himalayas, and the last great tremor was in January 1934.

The latest string of high intensity quakes began with the interminable shake at midday Saturday, a holiday. This meant that most children were safely with their families, and mostly outdoors, when the houses collapsed.

Till this writing, there was no saying how many more than the projected 10,000 citizens have died in faraway hamlets, given that even communities within Kathmandu valley and nearby valleys were not seeing rescue and relief from a laggard government.

Today, more than a million citizens are living under the stars all over the midhills. As hope for those trapped under the rubble recedes, the urgency is to deliver tens of thousands of tents that will last through the upcoming monsoon, after which the homes will have to be built anew.

In Kathmandu valley, we had been taught to expect nearly a lakh of dead in worst-case scenario, given the haphazard cement construction, unplanned urbanism and lack of support services. However, the concrete pillar-and-beam houses, such an unsightly new addition to urban architecture all over South Asia, stood firm in most parts, saving so many lives.

In the villages, it was the houses of brick or rock held together with mud mortar that crumbled within seconds. The same held true for the heritage sites such as the durbar squares of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, all their monuments kept together by mud mortar.

Nepal has been dogged by political disasters and natural disasters, the one affecting society’s ability to respond to the other.

Over the last year and half, there were monsoon floods in the far west, a freak flood on the Dudh Kosi, a one-kilometre wide mountain-slide in Dolakha district, and a disastrous avalanche on Mount Everest. The state’s sluggishness in response was evident in each of these, before the Great Earthquake handed a challenge exponentially larger.

The run of political misfortune that weakened governance began two decades ago, in 1996, with the armed conflict. That ended in 2006, but the chaotic political transition dragged on and the peace dividend became a mirage. One constitution assembly failed to deliver a document over four years of waiting, and we are now into the second year of the second constituent assembly.

The unsettled politics has demoralised bureaucracy and weakened the political parties, besides injecting corruption into the capillaries. Politicians lost credibility due to their inability to deliver a constitution.

Most critically, the lack of elected local representatives in the 75 districts, nearly 4,000 villages and municipalities all over has contributed to deathly lack of accountability in governance.

The absence of elected local government has become acutely evident today in the aftermath of the earthquake of April 25. Between a dysfunctional national government and absence of elected representatives at the local level, it was the citizenry which came forward at every stage, from immediate rescue from destroyed homes to organising soup kitchens, and protecting heritage sites ripped apart by the 7.9 Richter shake.

Given the economic standstill deriving from political instability, over the past two decades millions of young adults departed for India, the Gulf and Malaysia as job migrants. Thus it was that, when the earth shook, there were few hands in the villages to dig out the injured and the dead, or to conduct last rites.

Besides the lonesomeness at the homestead, the psychological distress of the job migrant far from home can only be imagined.

Ironically, the earthquake came at a time when the political forces – mainly the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, the Maoists and some of the Madhesi parties – seemed at last to be moving towards agreement on the procedure for constitution writing.

The earthquake has eclipsed constitutional politics for the moment, but there is no getting away from the fact that the renowned resilience of the Nepali people is wearing thin – and the politicos hopefully are aware of this.

If politicians of all stripes are not to lose their credibility and careers, they must move quickly towards adopting the constitution and holding elections to local bodies. National reconstruction following the Great Earthquake of 2015 requires both to happen. The people cannot be left this bereft anymore.

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