The honeymoon is over

  • Regardless of how the govt manages reconstruction, there is likelihood of some disillusionment creeping in
- Deepak Thapa
The honeymoon is over

Jun 18, 2015-

If one had to come up with a consistent theme that has characterised the collective Nepali response to the earthquake, it has to be the one about resilience. A close second (even the overriding one for many) would be the spectacle of the government scrambling after being literally caught with its pants down. But, for a country that is still viewed by some as imbued with a fatalistic mindset, the manner in which ordinary Nepalis began picking up the pieces of their lives is nothing short of remarkable.

News reports have been full of such stories and it began on Day 1 itself, with people whose houses had collapsed around them sifting through the rubble in search of retrievables. And, even as relief work continued, mainly with individuals and private and non-governmental organisations taking the immediate lead, temporary shelters

had begun springing up using material salvaged from destroyed homesteads along with tarpaulins bought or provided. There was no waiting around for the government to decide how best to distribute the Rs 15,000 meant to help the affected population tide over the monsoon. All in all, there has been much appreciation of the fact that Nepalis have proved themselves highly capable of bouncing back to their feet, pretty much on their own.

Nothing unusual

A corollary is the sub-text in many of the op-eds that have appeared since the earthquake that it took such a devastation to bring together a people that had been divided by social identity as a result of the federalism debate. At first glance, it does seem true. Madhesi representatives, political or otherwise, were found up in hill towns handing over material collected down south. The 16-point agreement on the political process may have been driven by other imperatives but there is no denying that it was instigated by the earthquake. The relief efforts that swept out of Kathmandu attempted to reach out to everyone, irrespective of caste or ethnicity. Mutual help during times of trouble certainly appears to have fostered social solidarity with districts far from the affected zone also sending in help. There have been glaring anomalies, of course, just as there has been corruption and plain thievery, not to mention the reinforcement of established patronage networks by opportunist politicians.

There could be many reasons for our ability to stay standing. Those with experience in post-earthquake Haiti have contrasted the Nepali spirit very favourably. Unlike the lassitude in that faraway country as poor as us, Nepalis in the affected area have demonstrated a vitality that has amazed outsiders. One factor could be the number of the dead. When between one to three percent of the entire population has succumbed in a disaster, as in Haiti, some degree of torpor can only be expected. In Nepal, on the other hand, despite a scale of physical destruction on a comparable scale, the death toll was less that 0.03 of the population. With all due respect to those who lost their near and dear ones, that would surely have allowed for the larger population to immediately begin thinking about the future.

Tamsaling in trouble

At the risk of puncturing the sense of exceptionalism that we Nepalis sometimes like to indulge in, it has to be pointed out that this highly laudable post-earthquake response is perhaps commonplace in a day-after scenario. The American Red Cross describes four phases in the aftermath of a disaster that has some resonance with us here. Granted that it is not the most popular organisation at the moment given the bad press it has received recently for apparently grossly mismanaging funds raised for Haiti, but its experience, in the words of the New York Times, as ‘perhaps the world’s most famous disaster-relief organisation’ cannot be downplayed. The four phases are: heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment, and reconstruction and recovery.

The heroic phase is when people are involved in saving oneself and family, engaging in rescue, recovering possessions, and otherwise engaged in activities that can be described at heroic. The honeymoon phase sets in immediately afterwards as people bask in their good fortune of having managed to make it alive and then engage in community efforts and help one another even as external help begins to arrive. We are smack in the second phase now. As the seismologist Roger Bilham told a Kathmandu gathering last month, it will be six months before the full scale of the disaster will hit the country, just in time for the onset of phase three—disillusionment.

Regardless of how the government manages reconstruction, there is little likelihood of some disillusionment not creeping in. It is only human nature. And my fear is that if not handled with the utmost sensitivity, such disillusionment can have dangerous consequences.

Consider the following. Besides Gorkha, all the 13 other districts categorised by the government as severely affected lie within the boundaries of a Tamsaling province envisaged by the Nepal Tamang Ghedung, the organisation that claims to speak for the welfare of all Tamangs. Similarly, the Tambasaling proposed by the Maoists in the run-up to the 2008 election includes nine of the 14 districts, although the three districts of the Kathmandu Valley that would make up the state of Newa also have substantial Tamang populations. Tamangs do not constitute the majority in either of these conceptions of a Tamang homeland, but the inclusion of these districts in both does denote their strong presence there. This is to say that the impact of the earthquake was perhaps felt most severely by Tamangs as a group than by any other.

Build back better

There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence of relief groups dropping off supplies along the road without consideration of those who live higher up the slopes, usually Tamangs, or in other marginal lands, usually Dalits. Equally, for reasons of access, Tamangs would also be the ones who are likely to find it most difficult to receive services whether in the form of the ongoing physical verification to receive compensation or the issuance of ID cards to access the government’s rehabilitation and reconstruction packages. Anger is yet to be seen even in a group historically oppressed by the state over the centuries but build up it definitely will, with or without the help of political parties and/or groups such as the Tamang Ghedung. A major test of the government leading reconstruction will be to manage the many grievances that cannot even be anticipated at present.

We will soon be hearing a lot about this idea called ‘build back better’, endorsed most recently by the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March earlier this year. As a conference document describes it, this approach ‘advocates for the restoration of communities and assets in a manner that makes them less vulnerable to disasters and strengthens their resilience’. We can only hope that the country never loses sight of the ‘better’ in that slogan for it is only by ensuring that the life of the Tamang shepherd up in his pasture as well as that of the Dalit labourer and her family living next to the river has been changed definitely for the better that reconstruction will have fully succeeded.

Published: 18-06-2015 07:24

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