Flawed categoryCan the state have two definitions of family, one for imposing tax and another for providing compensation?
More than a year has gone by since the great earthquake of April 2015, but we are still striving very hard to bring normalcy back to our lives. The state’s response has been grossly inadequate, which shows our collective and institutional incapacity to deal with big disasters. The utter insensitivity shown by those at the helm make us cringe. While the inaction and the buffoonery of the ruling political elites have been aptly criticised by the media and members of the public alike, there is one particular aspect of the assessment where the media, authorities and the donors (so called experts) have all colluded. And that is causing discomfort for the sociologist in me.
In the newspapers and other outlets, there have been repeated mentions of the inflated numbers of earthquake victims. Many victims have been branded as pseudo- or fake-victims, and their inflated number is seen as a ploy orchestrated chiefly by local political party activists to misappropriate the state funds that have been or will be made available to the victims. So a number of surveys have been conducted to assess the damage and the actual number of quake-victims. The latest effort is a census conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in eleven of the most affected districts with financial support from the World Bank and other donors.
This latest census is the result of the distrust shown by the authorities and the donors toward the earlier findings based on local-level mechanisms. In order to prevent the ‘misappropriation of funds’ by the so-called fake victims, the government of Nepal and its foreign partners are spending a lot of money in ‘advance technologies’ (tablets, servers, etc) and technical manpower (engineers) for the reassessment effort. As the news reports show, more than the authorities the reporters themselves have been awed by the information collected (digital pictures of the damaged houses from different angles) and the efforts made to ensure the ‘veracity’ of the data.
But we have not been informed about the trade-off involved. For instance, what is the total cost of doing this new round of census-like data collection and the additional cost of the delay in launching the rebuilding programmes? If the same amount had been used for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of victims, some of whom might be fake ones, how many would have been helped by now? Fewer victims would be staring at a second monsoon under temporary shelters. In the name of ‘accuracy’ of data, needed mostly for procedural reasons, prompt help deserved by the quake-victims has been sacrificed. Government authorities need to enlighten us about the details of this trade-off and good journalists should pursue this matter further.
Shades of meaning
My real discomfort, however, lies somewhere else. It is related to what I call a ‘flawed category’ and its ultimate consequences on the lives of the victims. The categories that we are using have serious flaws as they are divorced from the lived social realities of the victims or the general public. Let me explain one such category—family—and its implications.
When my foreign friends (or even some Nepali ones) ask me how my family is, I always find it difficult to answer. It may seem to be a very simple question, but my understanding of ‘my family,’ and that of the questioner might be very different. Family is often times translated in Nepali as parivar. But in Nepali we hardly ever ask: ‘how is your parivar?’ Perhaps the Nepali equivalent would be: Ghartira kasto chha? Jahan-parivarlai kasto chha? Ghar-parivarko hal ke chha? Here ghar, jahan-parivar, or ghar-parivar all have different shades of meanings.
When my daughter’s school lesson requires her to write who is in her family, I tell her that she has six members in her family, which includes my parents who do not live with us in Kathmandu but in Pokhara along with a distant relative of ours. Even though by now I have lived half of my life in Kathmandu away from my parents, never do I visualise my family without them.
But when I started earning, the state branded me as a single member family and then took away a certain percent of my income as tax. It did not care to ask me whether I had to support the people I viewed as ‘family’. What the legal document related to income tax is thus essentially implying is that my parents or my siblings are not part of my family. However, when it comes to ancestral property the same state may have a different definition of the family.
Problem of omission
Now a catastrophe has struck and the state, willingly or unwillingly, is saying that it will help the victims. But it has faced difficulty in categorising the victims and their families. Is only the ‘owner’ of the house a victim? Are the many ‘families’ who inhabit the same house—but may or may not share the same kitchen—not equally eligible to receive compensation? If not, why? Does the state income law not already define a family and tax accordingly? Can the state have two definitions of the family, one for imposing tax and another for handing out compensation? Before putting blame on the victims and their local political interlocutors, one has to first unpack this seemingly simple but utterly complex category called family, and the state’s duplicitous definition of it.
The new high-tech census may produce more ‘accurate’ information of the damages, and may provide data congruent with the figures from the last national census of 2011. But this is not going to resolve my question. This means the problem of omission will be significant and many victims, obviously the poor ones with relatively less agency, are likely to be neglected in the so-called rehabilitation and reconstruction stage. When the category that the state creates or uses is seriously flawed and is incongruent with the lived social realities of the citizens of the country, the consequences can be tragic for many victims of the 2015 earthquakes. Blaming the victims or political parties is hardly helpful in this case.
Parajuli is a researcher at Martin Chautari