Oped

A country under strain

  • One major crisis we face today is the inability of the political leadership to rise up and reassure the people
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

Apr 29, 2015-A spring earthquake, nine years after a revolution, in a country strained by political and business elites. It almost sounds like a haiku, if it weren’t for real feelings of fear and helplessness; in-built feelings of outrage at the political situation that didn’t allow us to prepare enough for this tragedy; and the possibility that even all this may not be the end of it.

The ‘it’ refers not only to the probability of another similar occurrence in the next

decades, from a trench somewhere in Western Nepal, but also to the political condition that we have come to accept and despise at the same time.

If it weren’t for the resilience of sane people and communities, who have been a source of inspiration in a place where government accountability is confined to the constitution, we would already be spilling our outrage.

Yet, we are not supposed to talk about it.

A complete failure

The government’s crisis communications has failed completely. The failure was reflected more in its inability to inspire people’s confidence in the political leadership guiding the actual rescue and the relief operations than the agencies and people who have put themselves in harm’s way to help the people in need. Given that the first priority of any response to crisis is reassurance, rescue, and relief, it would be unwise to weaken the people’s confidence in the government. The government’s effectiveness and accountability to disaster response should be scrutinised only after the first phase of rescue and relief operations is over.

One of the biggest crises we face today is the ability of the political leadership to rise up and communicate directly to the people, to reassure them. The political leadership need to build confidence in the people engaged in crisis response. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has ended up providing body counts when he should have been able to reassure the people and inspire confidence in the government’s relief and rescue efforts.

We need to safeguard the trustworthiness and credibility of the government in disaster communications and response. The failure to communicate has already had its impact. People in Baneshwor tried to attack a convoy of ministers, politicians and National Planning Commission officials. Security forces had to escort them to a safe location, according to the media.

Reassurance withheld

The first response and assurance to the Nepali people did not come from Nepali politicians, they came from the Indian Prime Minister. Narendra Modi is not only good at doing things, he is also good at communicating. The first day after the earthquake, the Twittersphere was rife with messages of gratitude from the Nepali Twitterati.

Fear is normal in a disaster like this, but reassurance was not forthcoming. Neither from the media nor the government. The government has not felt the need to hire experienced communicators. As a result, most of the government voices I have heard so far through radio and social media have failed to reassure the people and generate confidence in the government’s ability.

Many instances that dented the credibility of the political leadership was the way in which PM Koirala was portrayed as falling asleep during the Cabinet meeting, and looking for the Chief Secretary in places where he was not available. The third instance was reports that government officials and politicians first distributed relief to their friends and families while ordinary citizens saw no sign of the government.

This kind of outrage is based on selective information and largely an effect of the inability of the government to communicate effectively.

Public outrage after a disaster is natural, but outrage that finds its way through the media (including social media) does

disservice to a large number of government agencies and officials who are risking

their lives to save the people. Many of them are doing exemplary work and are not getting due credit.

It is but natural for the people to start questioning the preparations of the

government and its effectiveness in implementing the National Integrated Disaster Response System.

I heard a top level Ministry of Physical Planning and Infrastructure official on the radio saying their priority was rescue. He said the people in Kathmandu were supposed to rely on self-help the first two-three days as the government could not provide shelter. His statement was quite irresponsible and he did nothing to reassure the people. He shifted accountability by pointing out rescue efforts going on in Gorkha and Sindhupalchowk.

The messenger

The media in Nepal has yet to come of age. Personally, the source of my information has been online media, especially Twitter, where individuals, rather than institutions (except for international institutions), have played a far-greater role in providing correct perspectives and information much needed in crisis.

Information, as well as rumours, spread faster on Facebook, which has been responsible for generating panic and fear among people. The print media’s role was negligible during the first three days after the earthquake, which is not unnatural.

Unfortunately, some of the biggest publishing houses did not take their responsibility seriously and chose to locate themselves in high-risk buildings. The consequences are clear. Facebook and Twitter and the internet were the most accessible sources of knowledge. We had access to the radio, but the content provided by radio networks was mostly redundant.

Services undelivered

Another element under question is the government’s ability to deliver services. A lot of people are asking for my opinion about who would be the best agency to hand over aid or relief for the victims. The government’s ability to convert cash to aid has not been very satisfactory, given its recent track record.

There is already outrage at the non-performance of the political leadership. Some of this outrage maybe genuine, because a lot of people in Kathmandu are also facing hardship and they saw no signs of the government making an effort to provide relief.

Once the first phase of response to crisis is over, it will be time to assess the performance of the government. Yet, people prefer to start doing this sooner than later.

Published: 29-04-2015 10:16

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