Partners in crime

  • The process of reconstruction must go hand-in-hand with the project of democratisation
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
Partners in crime

May 26, 2015-

We are seeing a curious case where the relationship between the three largest parties is turning into an oxymoron. They are competing with each other, but at the same time, colluding with each other to thwart challenges from new entrants into the field.

The parties woke late to the need for an organised presence in the disaster-affected areas. By that time, new political groups, individuals, and civil society organisations were already well into their relief efforts. Hence, the largest parties’ renewed vigour in relief and reconstruction efforts.

The political leaders first emerged with suits or well-pressed daura suruwals, then with hard hats. The largest parties then mobilised volunteers and sent them out to the districts. The government also announced at the same time that they would engage youth volunteers.

The intense competition among political parties to show their presence in the disaster-affected areas became a headache for the local state machinery. Chief Secretary Lilamani Paudel told a parliamentary oversight committee that civil servants had become distressed because of political interference. The political parties, rather than generating resources on their own, are keen on appropriating and distributing state resources and relief materials.

Persistence of extraction

Despite increased engagement of political parties and the government in relief efforts, people’s grievances appear to have increased. Parliamentary oversight mechanisms have pointed out severe shortcomings of the state in both relief and transparency of operations. This has raised the question of how equitable and fair the relief efforts have been.

In Sindhupalchowk, there were violent incidents where victims took to arms. In Rautahat and Makwanpur, ordinary citizens stood against relief being provided by the largest three parties.

The disaster was supposed to have reminded all of us about the frailty of our human condition and the need to rise above petty personal interests. However, free-riders and extractive systems have persisted; even dug deeper into the fabric of our social life. The extractive regimes are already at work in the relief and reconstruction efforts.

As Kantipur reports, the government agencies and businesses have colluded to increase the price of a bundle of zinc sheets by Rs 700. Similarly, the media has been reporting that government agencies are buying sub-standard tarpaulins at inflated prices. There are plenty of such incidents, allowing us to generalise that evil continues to lurk, and the project of democratic reforms is still going to be an arduous one.

Government and donors

This brings us to the question of how to handle reconstruction. There is a strong belief among donors that now is not the time to address Nepal’s governance problems, and the focus should be solely on reconstruction.

A counter-argument is that history allows us very few opportunities or critical historical junctures for democratic reforms to take place. If Nepal misses this juncture to push for reforms and limit extractive regimes, then we may have to wait for decades before democratic reforms can constrain the extractive political and economic institutions.

Similarly, focussing merely on reconstruction, or rebuilding Nepal to a level slightly better than before, will not address Nepal’s real problems. Such efforts will only increase the gap between the rich and the poor, and maintain the current political culture. If we miss the opportunity for reforms, we will slide back to a state of underdevelopment with the persistence of extractive regimes. This, in turn, will fail to address people’s real grievances and generate further conflict.

The donor agencies are also drawing up a post-disaster reconstruction plan together with the government. This process, so far, remains non-transparent and is taking place behind closed doors, where the people are not able to observe what’s happening.

A small group of people in government want to retain control over relief and reconstruction efforts. The donors are not much different, and most of their planning appears to be secretive. If this continues, the donor agencies will end up becoming partners in a bigger crime; they will only generate resentment among the people. The best of intentions, if they are not handled or communicated properly, will only generate negative outcomes.

Fate and the fatalistic

The earthquake has also shed light on the nature of our fatalism. Nepali people tend to be fatalistic when they believe that they do not have control over nature or the state of things. Prior to the earthquake, people who thought they had no control over nature tended to not take precautions against earthquakes.

The same thing applies to politics and society. Nepali people who think they have no control over their government or their society tend to be fatalistic. But with the big earthquake, a new generation of citizens have emerged, who believe that they have control over nature, politics, and society; that they can change things, including politics.

If carefully managed, the relief and reconstruction efforts could go hand-in-hand with the project of democratisation. Or rather, in order to be effective, the relief and reconstruction efforts ‘must’ go hand-in-hand with the project of democratisation and transparency.

One of the lessons from the disaster is that we need greater partnership between resilient communities and local governments. In order to be more resilient, communities and local bodies must have resources, political power, and skills. Indigenous knowledge and skills are more likely to be tailored to ground realities than models driven by the donors and the central government.

Going local

Given the way the three largest political parties are operating at the moment, they are resisting the agenda of political reforms and the entry of new players. In fact, they are quite likely to create barriers to the political and economic participation of new players and ordinary citizens.

In order to overcome a sense of fatalism among the people, we need to inject a sense of hope and agency. The people need to feel that they are in control, not only of politics, but also of the process of relief and reconstruction.

One of the best ways to ensure people’s participation is to push for local elections. The disaster has lessened the threshold of political resistance, and if the Nepali people and the international community can convince the UCPN (Maoist), the last standing barrier, local elections are possible.

Published: 27-05-2015 07:12

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