Still Crying for Nepal – Six months later Gabriele Kohler

Six months after the Nepal earthquakes there has been a spike in international media interest in the country. Many programmes and articles have looked into the fate of the survivors. As six months ago, one needs to cry as one watches the footage or reads the reports – cry for those bereaved, those traumatised by the quake and continuing aftershocks, for those whose homes were destroyed and who huddle under tarpaulins and lean-tos, with little access to food. One can but cry for children who are orphaned or lost siblings and friends or are being trafficked; for the pregnant women and young mothers with no safe, clean, warm spaces; for widowed women without a home or an income; for women and girls lacking security and privacy. One cries for young men who had migrated to the Gulf states for work and cannot return home to help their families because of the cruel, feudal kafala system – akin to bonded labour. One cries for members of the Dalit and Tamang communities who, among the poorest in the country, find themselves pushed even further into income poverty and social exclusion.

And one is totally distressed by the lack of action by Kathmandu political party bosses, who do not appear much concerned with the plight of these communities. More than six months after the earthquake, the government has failed to establish a reconstruction authority which would be the conduit for finance towards the reconstruction of housing, schools, clinics, roads and walkways, and other infrastructure. This is all the more infuriating because the Nepal Planning Commission, together with the country’s line ministries and UN experts, had compiled a well-documented inventory of damage, reconstruction requirements, and associated cost for the donor meeting convened in June:  the Post Disaster Needs Assessment.

Donors – India, the development banks, China, Japan, and others – pledged US$4 billion towards a reconstruction fund. But with few exceptions, such as the Asian Development Bank, they are reluctant to disburse funds before the technical, accountability and monitoring mechanisms are in place. Perhaps a lame excuse, perhaps a valid concern. The people affected are those under the tarpaulins, not those in the offices. Among those who could benefit are migrant workers who – for the sad reason of earthquake destruction – could perhaps find decently-remunerated employment at home generated by a solid and professionally-coordinated reconstruction effort.

But while no – or very limited – reconstruction finance is reaching the country, humanitarian aid efforts are impressive. Humanitarian assistance has arrived in many forms. Local youth, often from privileged backgrounds, have been trekking to villages with supplies and donations.  Some NRNs – non-resident Nepalis from the professional and business classes – have returned with capital and skills. Foreigners, from long-time humanitarians to tourists, are supporting villages and communities, hands-on and with donations.

On a more systemic level, the UN has been able to distribute US$ 25 million in the form of cash benefits and employment schemes. UNICEF has partnered with the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Government and the local government – district and village development committees – to provide a top up of US$ 30 per person to all current recipients of government assistance – widows, people with disabilities, seniors, children of the Dalit caste. US$ 15 million are available for this, and have so far reached 300 000 people. This is in parallel to the massive effort to provide food and tents, led by the World Food Programme, and the health clinics and vaccination drives, drinking water purification measures, and temporary school spaces that have been set up by several UN agencies.

There are two other key – but literally invisible – areas of post-earthquake professional aid. One is around psychosocial support to deal with distress and traumata, coming from UNICEF, and from NGOs such as OXFAM  and Don Bosco.

Another is about   offering – at least minimal  –  hygiene  and personal safety items to the women and girls now living in makeshift accommodations – sanitary pads, flashlights, whistles. This is a wonderful initiative of UN Women and UNFPA that needs more recognition and support.

Still, two huge challenges exacerbate the earthquake tragedy. Both ultimately stem from the fact that Nepal is riven by massive economic poverty.  Eight million people – out of the country’s 28 million population – live with less than $1.25 per day. The economic poverty is enormously intensified by and intersects with soul-deep gender discrimination and caste and ethnic divisions.

The protests of the Tharu and Madheshi communities in the southern districts of Nepal have resulted in more than 40 deaths over the past two months. Imports of medicines, foodstuffs, building materials, and fuel have been disrupted. The conflict was ignited by the sudden and chaotic adoption of the new Constitution, which is seen to systematically under-represent the Terai communities in national decision-making bodies. Many Nepali journalists are accusing the government of India of blockading Nepal to pressurise for amendments in the new Constitution; conversely, Indian commentators describe the fear of Indian transport workers who consider entering Nepal as too risky. In either case, it would be the urgent responsibility of the political leaders and of the intellectual elites of Nepal to press for a peaceful and equitable resolution of this political conflict turned violent.

The Dalit – the Oppressed – caste has traditionally been excluded economically, socially, politically. This syndrome is reproduced painfully in the post-earthquake situation. There are numerous reports of Dalit villagers not receiving allocations of food or other aid. In a recent survey, 80% of the Dalits interviewed felt there has been wilful negligence in providing the relief and immediate support.

What can be done? Some issues will take a generation to genuinely eliminate – gender, ethnic and caste discrimination may be reinforced or condoned by elites, but the actual transgressions occur at the inter-personal and community level; thus it will require patient behaviour change influence to eradicate these forms of oppression, in addition to implementing the exisiting anti-discrimination legislation. Other issues need to tackled head-on, assertively, immediately. They include as a matter of urgency the politics and violence surrounding controversial sections of the Constitution, and the institutional vacuum created by the absence of a reconstruction authority.

How much longer do we need to cry for Nepal?

Also see for documentation on the situation and an interview calling for tourism, humanitarian and reconstruction aid as ways to support Nepal.