Bureaucratising reliefPrioritisation of the lives of citizens, not the policing of restrictive rules, should be central
Widespread reports in different international and national media on the inadequacies of the Nepali state’s response to the tragedy of the earthquake come as no surprise. As many have pointed out, the enormity of the destruction, Nepal’s geographical terrain and the massive coordination problems posed by the influx of international rescue and aid teams would overwhelm any government. For example, according to one international rescue and relief worker, in the four days after the earthquake, over 200 international teams had arrived in the country. Coordination for any functioning government would be an uphill challenge.
Death by bureaucracy
But this is not just ‘any government’ and it has never been the most ‘functioning’ even before the earthquake, especially in terms of the prioritisation of the delivery of goods and services to the people. This is not an issue of a ‘lingering lack of governance’—as highlighted in a recent Indian newspaper op-ed on the earthquake. The state, based on inherited feudal structures and cultures of government, has built upon and expanded patronage networks prioritising the distribution of state funds among elites (read the now resurrected all-party-mechanisms [APM]) and has continued to treat inhabitants as subjects and not rights-bearing equal citizens.
It is in this context that activities around the first pinch point to rescue and relief work in Nepal—the country’s only international airport—needs to be situated. According to an international relief worker, in the immediate days following the earthquake, the Israeli rescue and relief team had been ready to take off in its helicopter at the airport at 6.30am. However, they were made to wait until 9am when the bureaucrat whose signature they required to be able to fly in the helicopter, arrived for work. Such permissions are still required on a day by day basis. When every second counts to save lives, especially in the early days of rescue, the feudal state mechanisms ambled, and ambles, on; literally causing death by bureaucracy.
The same feudal logic informs the holding up of vital relief supplies at the airport. Home Ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal is quoted as saying the inspection of all goods from overseas “is something we need to do”. At a time of emergency, that what the government ‘needs to do’ is save lives appears to be missed. An international source stated that a few days ago, a Japanese team had arrived ready to spring into action at 7am but were forced to wait until they received their goods 12 hours later. How many lives could have been saved in that time?
Business as usual
Official clarifications that organised relief materials and ‘individual’ relief materials are not taxed, but the latter require additional paperwork and post-work confirmation have been useful. However, doubts have been raised on the actual implementation of these rules. That taxes on tents and tarpaulins were only lifted on Friday raises the issue of how Nepali custom officials had defined relief materials before this date and what had and had not been consequently taxed. There are reports from the eastern part of the Tarai of taxation on relief materials crossing the border by land.
Indicative of the predominant logic of the state is the explanation furnished by a National Planning Commission (NPC) official for the reasons for vigilance over relief materials at this time: “The taxes the state is forgoing is not trivial…It wants to ensure that the implicit state subsidy is targeted towards genuine relief. Do not underestimate the scale of cheating that goes on when there is no monitoring or voluntary code of honour in place.” While understanding the need for rules and regulations, here the ‘business as usual’ mentality holds sway in the face of the biggest tragedy the nation has faced in decades. Concern over loss to the national treasury trumps the need to save lives. Underlying the monetisation and clear devaluation of people’s lives is the logic of a state that seeks not to serve citizens, but to accumulate power to justify its existence along feudal lines of authority. Tellingly, Thomas Bell’s report on the earthquake for the British paper The Independent on Sunday included the following description in Sindhupalchowk: “Lying by the road in the village was a pile of supplies under tarpaulins. These had been delivered by the government the previous evening. However, the officers at the small police station there had not been authorised to distribute them, so they lay untouched.”
Much can be said about the role of internationals in the dysfunctionality of the airport today, the overall state of Nepal’s lack of ‘earthquake preparedness’ and coordination and other problems in current rescue and relief operations. For the moment, however, it is important to note that reports make clear that it has been the internationals and the non-state sector (with the exception of the Nepal Army) which have played key roles in responding to the needs of the people. With few exceptions, the state has so far performed miserably in the aftermath of the earthquake. While there is a real need to not undermine state authority, and indeed to build state capacity, it must be made clear that rebuilding/strengthening a feudal state is not the goal. The feudal legacy embedded in an antiquated bureaucracy and reinforced by a political elite centered on power and its preservation, must be fiercely critiqued and resisted by all citizens. Prioritisation of the lives of citizens—not the policing of restrictive rules in a time of emergency—should be central. The expedient delivery of relief materials from the airport and other locations to citizens in need must take precedence.
Tamang is a political scientist based at the research and policy centre Martin Chautari