Misguided priorities

  • The govt’s argument that the ‘relief phase’ is now over and all focus should be on rebuilding is flawed
- Shradha Ghale

Jun 24, 2015-

Two months after the massive earthquake, the government has declared that the ‘relief phase’ is over and focus should now be on reconstruction. No one can deny the enormity of the task the government was faced with during this time. And yet it is hard not to conclude that the government’s relief efforts were largely a failure.

Hardest-hit and underserved

Inequalities entrenched in the Nepali state characterised relief distribution in all affected areas. People with connections to local politicians or those possessing other means of influence were able to put their names higher up on the distribution list, while others with less access had to wait even when they had suffered substantial damage. This was a problem, in particular, for people who live higher up on the ridges and could not come to the Village Development Committee (VDC) offices to pressure officials, and for communities that have no representation in the decision-making bodies—such as Dalits, Tamangs and members of other indigenous groups. Women who only speak their mother tongues and cannot articulate their needs in Nepali had even less chances of getting a fair share of relief. The post-quake response has further exposed the caste, class and gender disparities in Nepali society. The notion that the earthquake has proved Nepal to be one big happy family and discredited those who speak of exclusion and inequality is wishful thinking.  

A study conducted by Martin Chautari showed that relief efforts were uneven and chaotic even within the Kathmandu Valley. There was no mechanism for assessing needs at the household level. The decision to distribute one tarp per household, for instance, meant that even families with ten members ended up having to share a single tarp. Nor was the level of loss and damage suffered by each household taken into account. In Gongabu, one of the study areas, most of the buildings that were destroyed belonged to landlords who lived in safer houses in another part of town. But it was the landlord, not the dispossessed renter, who was counted as the victim and provided relief. Renters, often poor migrants from other districts, were among the hardest-hit in all study areas.

The ‘relief phase’

Relief and reconstruction cannot be treated as two distinct phases that follow in neat chronological order. The idea that the relief phase is now over and all focus should be on rebuilding is misleading. It ignores the fact that relief provided to affected families has been severely insufficient. The earthquake destroyed not only their houses but also their livelihoods. Even villages near the road that have received several sacks of rice and tarpaulins are in no position to sit back and relax and ‘become lazy’, as many like to claim. As for the people in areas that are more inaccessible and situated on risky terrain, they are still waiting for adequate immediate relief.

In Rasuwa, for instance, several areas in Saramthali, Haku, and Chilime VDCs have yet to receive enough basic rations. These villages are many hours’ walk from the road-head. Due to heavy rain and frequent landslides, they are completely cut off from the rest of the district during the monsoon. Even in normal times people have to stock up on enough food to last for several months. Now when the earthquake has killed their family members, destroyed their homes and fields, and left them traumatised, we cannot possibly expect them to make do with a sack of rice and a tarpaulin.

On learning that we were planning to provide them roofing, locals in these villages said, “We’ll manage to cobble something together for shelter, but we’ll have nothing left to eat once we finish our existing rations.” Now that the government has declared the end of the relief phase and imposed a 40 percent tax on relief materials, the needs of such communities are far less likely to be addressed.

Volunteers versus government

Political leaders from the ruling parties displayed a resentful attitude towards volunteer relief groups. Central and VDC officials, as well as ward-level coordinators, pointed out various flaws in volunteer distribution: most volunteers came without understanding the area and brought insufficient goods, which led to conflict within the community. As volunteers had to return to Kathmandu by evening, they just dumped the supplies along the main road. They did not coordinate with local authorities and leaders who could have helped them in distribution. As a result, the bulk of the relief they brought went to the people who lived near the road, especially to the more aggressive ones, while those living even slightly away from the road did not get much. Even when volunteers cooperated with local leaders, they did not understand local power dynamics, which led to elite capture of goods.

These criticisms are valid to a large extent. However, it is worth noting that state actors involved in relief work did not rely on government mechanisms, either. A VDC secretary in Nuwakot complained that political parties were directly bringing relief to their areas instead of going through the VDC office. Some local political leaders in Sindhupalchok would rather find donors in Kathmandu than engage with the local authorities. A senior official at the National Trading Corporation sent relief goods directly to his village in Dolakha without informing the District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC). Political leaders themselves bypassed state mechanisms instead of trying to strengthen them.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer relief initiatives in the month after the earthquake. The more prominent ones consisted of young members of the urban middle class, but there were many other groups of diverse nature. Local volunteers on the ground took up the most difficult task of reaching the communities and distributing supplies, sometimes at great personal risk. In many places, people received far more relief from volunteer groups than from the government. Volunteer relief actions helped defuse much of the anger and resentment that people felt towards the government and political parties. Despite all their flaws, they deserve the gratitude of political leaders rather than hostility.

Role of state

However, informal and ad hoc initiatives, no matter how commendable, cannot be a substitute for state programmes. No other body besides the state has the capability to collect adequate data and ensure even distribution. In an ideal scenario, the state should have concentrated on doing the work that only it can do well—collecting detailed records of affected populations and their needs, streamlining bureaucratic hurdles, formulating targeted policies. It should have engaged with donors and volunteer groups in a spirit of openness and solidarity, proactively channeling relief to targeted households.

Sadly, the government performed its core duties poorly and has tried to excessively control the work of NGOs and volunteers. There is now a directive that states that no humanitarian organisation can import relief material except at the request of the government. This suggests that the state does have the information needed to make accurate assessments of people’s needs and, on this basis, to request specific goods from donors. But it is clear that the government has hardly been interested in this kind of detailed assessment. The state must work on reaching the population in a well-informed and targeted manner rather than focusing all its energy on controlling non-governmental initiatives. Otherwise its reconstruction efforts will fail even more dismally than its relief efforts.

Ghale is involved in the Social Auditing of the 2015 Earthquake, a collaborative project of Martin Chautari, GalliGalli, Bookaholics and Act4Quake

Published: 24-06-2015 08:29

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