Field notes

  • The double victimisation in the quake of the rural poor, who were also conflict victims, could lead to livelihood problems
- Ram Kumar Bhandari
Field notes

May 20, 2015-

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25 and the 7.3 aftershock on May 12 have caused massive destruction and suffering across the country. And yet, we survivors persevere, surviving hardships just as we survived the decade-long civil war and the nearly decade-long ‘political transition’.

History repeating

Fortunately I am safe, but my daily life, along with those of countless others, is filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. While the earthquakes remain fresh in our collective consciousness, it is critical to compare victims of human rights violations and victims of the earthquake so that we can use that knowledge to build a better future. Many surviving members of conflict victims’ families face fresh challenges as a result of the earthquake. Conflict victims have lost more family members and witnessed severe damage to their houses and livelihoods; this is another disaster for conflict victims and the poor after two decades of conflict, marginalisation, and victimhood.

The Government of Nepal failed time and again to address victims’ demands in the aftermath of the civil war. Victims have waited for years to know the truth, and receive necessary relief and justice. The majority of conflict victims have suffered through exclusion, poverty, and government negligence without victim-friendly mechanisms to address their needs. In Nepal, victims of the conflict learned that the poorer you are, the more you suffer and the more you are manipulated by powerful elites, a reality that is repeating with victims of the earthquake.

Three weeks since the Great Quake, thousands of homeless Nepalis have not received relief aid. There seems to be no comprehensive plan to address their needs in the immediate-, mid-, and long-term either. Poor leadership and governance have allowed the problems of poverty to persist for decades, resulting in the unnecessary and protracted suffering that we are all experiencing now.

Natural disasters are occasions for the government to score cheap political points through appeals for ‘reconciliation’, and so forth. Ruling parties are already discussing the formation of a national government and have thus politicised victimhood in relief distribution. Instead of prioritising support for victims of the earthquake, putting all efforts into rebuilding houses, creating civic trust, and developing national strength, Chief District Officers (CDOs) are handling the relief process, where NGOs are already dominant.

Politicised, bureaucratised

I participated in a district-level meeting in Lamjung headed by the CDO, and attended by heads of other line agencies, political heads, and NGOs. In the meeting, it became clear that the state has no policy or funds, and is instead relying upon donor-led NGOs affiliated with political parties for relief. At the same time, such NGOs are also perceived as competitors during intervention. The so-called ‘one-door policy’ to distribute relief to victims has not been effective. There is a huge gap between the central and local governments. Without local leadership in villages, the so-called multi-party mechanism at the VDC-level, led by the VDC secretary, has been guided by political interest, rather than the priorities of real victims.

I visited 10 affected VDCs in eastern Lamjung to distribute relief materials and found significant errors and tensions in villages where the real victims were often left waiting for relief. Further, various NGOs, the Red Cross, political parties, and the government were all collecting data independently, in the absence of coordination.

In Pachok VDC, a remote village in Lamjung where natural water is freely available, various NGOs were distributing bottled water to the people. Locals, of course, didn’t use it. One local teacher, Maitaraj Gurung, said, “They don’t need unnecessary bottled water and fast food. Rather, they need tents and reliable shelter for the coming rainy season. The schools in the area have been completely damaged, there is no possibility to open them without an alternative.”

According to a member of the district-level political mechanism, Mohanhari Poudel, “There is no coordination between parliamentarians and the parties. VDC-level local political mechanisms are weak and have links with their respective parties. As a result, NGOs are dominating and manipulating locals for their benefit.” Similar experiences are being reported in neighbouring Gorkha and other districts, where the government has yet to reach the poorest, who have been re-victimised through politicisation and bureaucratisation of the process. We must stay vigilant against this kind of abuse in the future to ensure that the earthquake does not widen discrimination in Nepal.

Without clearly establishing the needs and priorities of victims in the aftermath of the earthquake, local bureaucrats and political heads, along with NGOs, dominate relief processes in districts. There is a clear gap between the leaders and the people, the NGOs and the victims, and the victims and the administration. Some Christian NGOs and churches are allegedly only providing relief to their believers, creating disharmony within communities. Some NGOs are only reaching out to people in their project area, which could fuel tensions in the villages in the absence of any monitoring mechanism.

A laundry list

Who bears the cost of such errors? Just before the earthquake, I was with conflict victims discussing their needs and priorities; many of these same families of the missing in many affected districts have now become victims of the earthquake. Such double victimisation of the rural poor could cause significant and potentially irresolvable livelihood problems.

If Nepal is to effectively recover from the recent quakes, the list of tasks is significant. First and foremost, relief aid must not be politicised. All victims of the quakes deserve to be treated equally. Victims, especially those in rural villages, need immediate relief based on their needs and priorities. For many, this includes immediate shelter, medication, and rehabilitation. There must also be immediate concentrated efforts towards addressing the needs of women, children, and the disabled.

In time, efforts should shift towards creating long-term mechanisms to support those who have lost property and relatives in the earthquakes. As with those who lost family members during the civil war, livelihood support will be critical. Then, attention should shift to rebuilding sustainable infrastructure—schools, health posts, and community centres. If we are to move forward as a country, we must find ways to set aside our differences and recognise that in the aftermath of such a huge disaster, our collective future relies on each other.

Bhandari is Chairperson of National Network of Families of the Disappeared and Missing (NEFAD)

Published: 21-05-2015 08:29

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