A tough test

  • The earthquake should teach us to think collectively for short-term action and long-term vision
- Pramod Mishra
A tough test

Apr 29, 2015-

Since 2007, April 25 has been a personal day of mourning for my stateless mother. From this year on, the day will also be part of annual mourning for thousands of  ‘stateless’ Nepali men and women who perished in the earthquake on Saturday.  Every year, on this day, I remember my mother through dietary restriction, reflection, and sometimes a visit to a local temple in the Greater Chicagoland area. I recall my mother’s stateless life, her indomitable will in defiance of her own family and caste and my father’s family and caste to rebuild her life among strangers who became her own. She lived her life the way she decided to, despite adversities brought about by caste, clan, and states. As in the past, this year too, I had stayed late in my study until midnight on April 24, thinking of her, going to bed with thoughts of the next day of mourning, and a visit to the temple. I woke up the next morning to mourn thousands.

Self-centred rulers

I know that the survivors, with their indomitable will, grit, and resilience, will rebuild their lives and houses with the help of their neighbours, country folk, and the international community, even though the deceased will never return and their loss will never be repaired. But this is also an occasion to reflect on their special kind of statelessness occasioned by centuries of the self-centred ruling class of one political provenance or another, who have done everything fair and foul to grab the power of the state to rule by using the Nepali verb ‘hakne’ (drive), as in ‘deshhakne, party hakne’, etc, rather than serve the people by working for their short- and long-term welfare.  

Earthquake experts, very often, assert the cliché that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings and structures do. And it was the duty of the state and the government that occupied the state to prepare people to act before, during, and after a temblor in a quake-prone zone. The Nepali governments, whether they were run by Ranas, Shahs, or Bahun-Chhetris, family oligarchy, family dynasty, or multiparty political system, miserably failed to prepare the country and its people to face what was an inevitable and predictable natural disaster. How is it that they couldn’t hear the noise that the cohorts of national and international seismologists, environmentalists, earthquake experts, and journalists had been making in the media, conference halls, etc for decades?  

The slum city

Kathmandu’s architectural landscape and town planning represented the chaos in Nepal’s political landscape. How is it that Kathmandu became a slum-city over the decades?  Even if we allow that the old Malla-era architecture and town-planning of old Kathmandu, old Patan, and old Bhaktapur could be forgiven because centuries ago, the Malla rulers had no idea about the future nor did they have the technology to think for the future, how can one forgive the modern ambitions of the Ranas, the Shahs, and the quarter-century rule of multiparty mandarins? Didn’t the Rana rulers build massive palaces in imitation of the best of national and international architecture? Didn’t Mahendra and Birendra rule with an iron fist in the name of modernisation?  Haven’t the multiparty leaders ruled in the name of democracy? Then, why allow Kathmandu to grow into a slum-city with nary a thought about implementing civilised town planning, quake-resistance architecture, and disaster-management and preparation?  

The one answer to all this that comes immediately is focus on the rulers themselves. There has been a representative government since 1990 but there hasn’t been a representative government in the real sense of the term. Each leader, each party, each ruling ethnicity, like their predecessors, is focussed on itself. How and how much will it gain or lose if political changes occur?

How many political leaders died in Saturday’s earthquake? How many high-level bankers, bureaucrats, and security officials perished in the quake? Even though one can’t and one shouldn’t generalise the class orientation of the victims of the quake at this stage, one can safely say that, save for exceptions, it’s been mostly the common folk who lost their lives in this quake.  When my friends from far and near ask, “Are your family and friends alright?” I say, yes, they are fine as far as I know. But then I add, “But this is hardly a consolation.”  

The common good

Take, for example, the need to contribute to the relief effort in this quake. There is already scepticism in the air among Nepalis about whether the contributions, especially money, will reach the needy on the ground. Many have openly said that this disaster has become a god’s gift for the middlemen, officials, and politicians in Nepal to skim and grow even richer from the worldwide earthquake relief funds. Many have wanted to help the victims directly rather than going through intermediary agencies. Why is this? Why is it that Nepal and its ruling class during their years, decades, and centuries of rule allowed moral degradation, creating a political climate where those in power and position had only one concern--how to fill their own personal, family, and clan coffers? Will the reputation of the Nepali ruling class further deteriorate or rise in this generational disaster?

This natural disaster is terrible for the people who have been directly hit by it. But it is also a challenge and an opportunity for all Nepalis, no matter where they live, to think about the political climate of caste, clan, and ethnic hierarchy that has made us selfish and callous. The best instincts of compassion, generosity, common humanity, and fellow-feeling that this earthquake has brought to the fore ought to warn us against baser instincts, not only in ourselves but in others. It should teach us to think collectively for short-term action and long-term vision, for both quake crisis management and political compromise and give-and-take so that a stable abode and an equally stable political climate will enable us to focus on the common good of the common people.

Published: 30-04-2015 09:38

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