Demanding accountabilityIt is shameful if our fellow citizens die from cold due to the absence of some urgent but rather simple measures
It is a tragedy that in an increasingly interconnected world, people from several hill districts—some of them major tourist hubs and relatively prosperous—rendered homeless by a massive earthquake and a series of nerve wrecking aftershocks, continue to languish in despair. A few have already died from cold. Their habitations resemble refugee camps in war zones, as even after over six months of the disaster, the state machinery has not been able to provide any succour. Like always, there is no ‘political stability’ to steer operations and activities smoothly. At least this is what we are made to believe and many of us actually buy this rather vague argument. It appears that when it comes to accountability, the Nepali society in general has rarely demanded even basic services in the most pressing of times. While an authority has been created and legislative hurdles cleared for post-quake reconstruction, the efforts have hardly accelerated. Certainly, the supply constraints at border entry points due to the ongoing agitation in the Tarai have made the reconstruction process difficult but it is the political struggle that is the root of the problem.
Many of us are aware that cold-induced deaths are not unusual in the Tarai. A number of ‘charity’ measures like distribution of blankets, mostly by local politicians, do take place every year in a number of Tarai districts, but it is difficult to say what kind of long-term impact they have made or if they are the solution that politicians should opt for. A thick blanket of snow has fallen in several regions of Gorkha and is sure to worsen the plight of the several hundred quake victims. Cold related deaths in the new republic are not an aberration. Neither are deaths from completely preventable and treatable ailments like typhoid and cholera in places like Jajarkot.
Expediting reconstruction was apparantly what drove the promulgation of the constitution after over eight years of ‘discussions and debates’. But the reconstruction projects are yet to begin and instead the country has plunged into new turmoil. So many lives, mostly young, have been lost to mindless violence and repression. Narrow-minded, even racist, whims and fancies of two or three extremely powerful elites have led to a situation in which the entire nation has been held hostage. It has been argued that if previous proposals, agreements and ‘promises’ from earlier movements had been honoured, the current conflict in the Tarai would not have arisen. But a few with the fear of losing voters, constituencies and resultant privileges dictated terms, which has resulted in the current chaos.
The movement in the Tarai, contrary to speculations, appears mostly organic and is still continuing. While amendments have been agreed upon, some as demanded by protesting groups, it is the trust deficit that makes the protesters wary of promises. As talks go on, the cabinet members, in a rather unusual coalition of anti-federalists and monarchists, speak in public about their ‘preferences’, which are often an antithesis of the very foundations on which the new republic is to be founded. Such, rather incompatible, positions hardly build confidence in an extremely diverse society. William Easterly, an American economist, et al argue that ‘special’ competencies are required to govern ethnically diverse nations.
There have been endless rounds of talks between the agitating and major parties, and almost every day the people are told that a compromise is just a day or two away. All this is no doubt instrumental for stability and the forthcoming complex transition, but emergency relief and reconstruction should also be provided for. The disaster was declared a national emergency and several nations intervened to make a difference. But whether Kathmandu acted on this issue like it was a national emergency is questionable. The Govinda Pokharel led Reconstruction Authority which had some of the finest brains in the country could never take off largely because of politics and certain ‘protocols’ in a society that is known for transgressing all protocols. It took several months before the Reconstr-uction Bill required for the authority to come into force was passed, and that too after a lot of infighting among the so-called big three. Perhaps the donor community is not unaware of this kind of politics. We were told that the new charter will conclude the transition, but it has instead brought to the surface inherent social fragmentations.
Speaking of our state capacities, over the last few years, a big chunk of our development budget, large part of which comes from donors as aid and loan, has not been spent. Our inability to spend will not increase the confidence of donors in us as a functioning nation. A significant amount has been pledged to us by donors for reconstruction and if in the name of political instability, we are not able to spend the money properly, it will further erode our reputation. We the citizens should demand action and accountability from the government because it is shameful if our fellow citizens, homeless due to a disaster, die from cold due to the absence of some urgent, but rather simple, measures.
Gupta is pursuing MSc in Political Economy of Development at SOAS, University of London