Politics of earthquakeIn times of war-like crises, there is no opposition; the whole nation is, and should be, one
The devastating earthquake of April 25, which took a heavy toll on life and property, also reinforced the resilience of Nepalis and their harmonious social fabric, which had been somewhat upset by the bloody insurgency, protracted political transition, divisive politics, and bad governance during the last two decades. Though relief materials for quake victims in remote villages, especially in difficult terrains, have yet to reach, the nation as a whole is fast recovering. The sudden insight on basic truths of life and society that the unconquerable forces of the universe imparted seems to have made everybody wiser, including our leaders.
Although primarily selfish, humans are altruistic. The degree of philanthropy, however, may vary among individuals. Unfortunately, our leaders taught their followers differently; they said, look only we are altruistic, our political opponents are not. Ethnocentric activists even went one step further—they propagated that people of their race/ethnicity were altruistic while people of certain other ethnic groups were selfish. Even in the eyes of many of their own followers, now they are the bigots; for, both who lost their lives and properties and who took part in rescue operations in all sincerity and in deadly conditions belonged to all ethnic/caste groups.
Our leaders, especially the communists, always taught people to protest, however unnecessarily, for ‘their rights’—however unmerited. The mode of protests would mostly be violent strikes and shutdowns, in which common people would be forced or terrorised to cooperate. As law enforcement agencies were bound to take action under those circumstances, the protesters adopted a strategy to defame and demonise them, by blowing their actions out of proportion. Hence, they portrayed law enforcement personnel as cruel, inhumane, and even ‘anti-people’. The strategy was also useful in fuelling both hatred (toward the state) and militancy of the cadres.
The quake has now opened the eyes of all and sundry. Both the Army and the police force are the newfound heroes of the masses. These men in uniform risked their own lives, some even lost their lives to save that of others. Social network sites are full of praises for this self-sacrificing lot. Grateful peoples are urging youths to never pelt stones at them at the behest of any misguided leader. It remains to be seen whether this changed national psyche will help eliminate the menace of forced strikes and shutdowns in the future.
Against this backdrop, when they saw that those tactics will not work anymore, some cynics and ethnic/political activists are now arguing that while the men in uniform are doing a good job, the government is doing nothing. This is sheer nonsense, simply because those forces are part of the government. Besides, if security personnel have been on the frontline, in the backrooms, it were the civilian authorities who were/are busy in providing them with logistics and support. And, this is a standard, universal practice in operations like these.
Thousands of healthcare personnel, most of whom come from the government sector, have been saving the lives of several thousand quake victims. The Nepal Electricity Authority, a public sector enterprise and the only national power supplier, quickly restored most of the electricity supply that was destroyed by the killer quake. Another public enterprise, the sole supplier of petroleum products, Nepal Oil Corporation, has maintained a regular supply of oil products. Nepal Telecom, also a public body, has been providing uninterrupted telecom/internet, doing great service to rescuers, quake victims, and their kin living in places far away from them.
Chief District Officers and other civilian authorities busy in rescue and relief works in the districts are filling the vacuum created by the absence of an elected local government. They may be poorly-prepared, slow or even inefficient, but they are not ill-intended. Despite the ruptures and landslides, the Department of Roads has succeeded in keeping the major highways in working condition, thus ensuring the movement of supplies and people. Building engineers are busy inspecting cracked houses and advising people about building codes.
Similarly, the Civil Aviation Authority has succeeded in keeping the Kathmandu airport intact, the only nearest airfield available for rescue-crafts. For more than a week post-April 25, it handled 400 plus flights per day, 24 X 7. Common people do not know—as they don’t appear in the media—about the sleepless nights air traffic controllers and other personnel might have endured during these times. So on and so forth, the list is long; longer will be the list of unsung heroes who, despite their great contribution in rescue and relief works, either shun publicity or don’t get publicised. To allege that the government has done nothing is to undermine the selfless service of those angels. Blanket or biased judgments won’t help anybody; evaluations must be fact-based and objective, not emotion-driven.
Reward and punishment
Yes, the early response of the government was slow and to some extent, even maladroit. Even today, its efficiency or effectiveness is questionable, but not its intention. Some decisions and planning in the early post-quake days became dysfunctional. Inter-agency coordination has been ham-fisted. We are a poor nation whose resources and abilities—which includes the state of quake-preparedness—are meager. There may be several lapses in the government’s handling of the situation, and we must criticise, caution, and pressurise to correct wherever there is one. Democracy is all about public scrutiny of government functioning, which also compels governments to become efficient, effective, and responsive, especially in a calamity like this.
But there is another dimension to this case too. In times of war-like crises, there is no opposition; the whole nation is, and should be, one. Partisanship and protests meant for public consumption are luxuries of happier times. Whether by ignorance or design, this point was overlooked by a dozen or so writers and activists—close/affiliated to some opposition parties and/or ethno-regionalist movement. The ‘civil society leaders’, as they love to be called, could have led or joined the relief operations carried out by Nepali and foreign individuals; they could have participated in educating the people on various aspects of self-help in post-quake hardships. But no, the all-talk group just chose to stage a sit-in at the prime minister’s residence last week, which consequently faced a backlash. In the face of widespread public condemnation of their sit-in and sloganeering, they had to pack up and leave.