Accountability disasterThis type of calamity strips people of their right to seek relief during times of distress
Hemant R Ojha & Krishna K Shrestha
Nine months ago when two massive earthquakes struck Nepal causing 9,000 deaths, the infighting that had been going on for seven years among this new republic's politicians suddenly came to a halt. The disaster pushed the wrangling leaders to iron out major political differences and promulgate a new constitution last September. The crisis forced leaders to think and behave differently. Unfortunately, the historic moment of the promulgation of the new statute went counter to the plight of over three million earthquake victims as an unexpected crisis that followed paralysed recovery efforts.
Western media vigorously covered the effects of the tremors, but remained largely unable to report the complex geopolitics of the Nepal-India blockade affecting the recovery. Soon after the launch of the constitution, there was a shortage of essential commodities and transport paralysis right at the time when Nepal was about to embark on a massive recovery. Fuel and medicines stopped coming to Nepal from India that envelops the country from three sides and through which it accesses transit passage to the sea. As earthquake survivors in mountain villages waited anxiously for relief supplies in the winter chill, UN agencies warned that Nepal could sink into a major humanitarian disaster.
While earthquakes cannot be prevented, the geopolitical crisis could have been avoided, had conscience prevailed on all sides at such difficult times–the ruling party leaders, dissident Madhesi Morcha commanders and officials of South Block (the Indian Ministry of External Affairs). Instead of building confidence, politics turned to apathy, violence and bullying despite all the players knowing the severity of the humanitarian crisis.
For the most part, the ruling political leaders have to be accountable, but unsurprisingly, they appear to have lost sense of what it means to be a responsive government during times of disaster. Recall that for more than three days after the first earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit on April 26 last year, neither the Prime Minister nor a minister visited the epicentre Gorkha immediately after the disaster. For over a week after the killer tremor, none of the major political party leaders expressed anything in public about how they would respond to the crisis. While local groups responded quickly doing what they could, national politics remained silent for weeks after the deadly event.
When a tsunami hit Japan in 2011, the then prime minister Naoto Kan went on an inspection tour and expressed solidarity with the affected people soon after it happened. Such prompt response by the political leadership at a time of disaster is the defining feature of a democratic polity and accountable leadership. In Nepal, politics could also have become more anticipatory given that the earthquake risk was not unknown. Despite repeated warnings by the scientific community about a potential major earthquake happening in the Himalaya at any time, the government did little to ensure the people's safety. The efforts of the Home Ministry, which mobilised the army and police for immediate relief and rescue, was commendable; but there was too little anticipation and institutional preparedness to deal with the crisis of such a scale.
Man made disaster
Clearly, Nepal faces a more severe disaster in political accountability than in the earthquake itself. Just recall the political wrangling between the two major parties that delayed the passing of the Disaster Recovery Bill. The rift occurred not over some principle of reconstruction, but over whose cadres should be nominated to head the new and powerful National Reconstruction Authority, which has a mandate to mobilise $4 billion to rebuild the affected areas. After several months of inter-party struggling, the head of the authority was named last month. For earthquake victims, the capacity and strategies of the recovery leadership matter a lot; but sadly, the appointment of these personnel is part of the political game of power and privilege. Indeed, party allegiance and favouritism is the only criteria that matters when appointing people to the most responsible public institutions.
In a country ruled largely by unaccountable politics, much of the earthquake damage is not the result of a natural force. It is actually the wrong buildings, infrastructure and policies that are responsible for the damage. In a democracy with more accountable politics, one can expect policy makers and planners to make sincere efforts to ensure that buildings and infrastructure are disaster resilient. But as the recent Transparency International report stated, political leaders are at the forefront of corruption. A very limited sense of political accountability exists with regard to ensuring public safety as such endeavours for the national good are compromised for narrow and unfair private gain.
Such a deep-rooted accountability disaster does not lead to causalities in a visible way; it is a silent killer of society at large. The entire political elite, from those in power through the opposition to social workers, all reside in the capital city of Kathmandu. In all the processes of contestations and democratic struggles, they have engaged in endless talks, in effect, centralising local power. Just take note of the fact that no local government election has been held since 2002. In effect, those in power have undermined democratic spaces at the local level that are so vital to disaster recovery.
The level of international support for disaster recovery has been unprecedented, but its effectiveness is questionable. A major donor conference held last November has led to commitments totalling $4.4 billion for the recovery fund. It is not yet clear how and when these pledges will be delivered; and even if the money comes, public institutions have limited spending capacity. Much of the disaster recovery aid has not yet found its way into the huts and bellies of the disaster-displaced people.
Fortunately, there has been no social collapse, no dramatic rise in suicides and no mental health disasters–thanks to the great social capital and spirit of supporting each other. These local strengths could have been better mobilised in the process of reconstruction. One can look at and recognise how communities and local governments have demonstrated a tremendous capacity to manage risks and advance development. They have built local infrastructures, small roads, schools and hospitals. But if there is anything that political leaders have done in Nepal, it is sabotaging local democracy. This is an extreme form of unaccountable politics. Earthquakes and natural disasters hit local people, their houses and their assets, but the accountability disaster makes people defunct as human beings, as people are stripped of their rights to seek humanitarian response in times of distress.
Shrestha is senior lecturer and Ojha is research fellow at University of New South Wales, Australia