MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
Tragic as the loss of life was on 25 April, we were lucky it wasn’t as bad as the worst case scenario for Kathmandu. It was Saturday just before noon, which meant many schools were closed. Any other day the city’s shops would have been open, the streets and alleys would have been crammed with people.
Five years ago, this magazine marked national Earthquake Safety Day with a special coverage in which seismologists warned of a catastrophic loss of life in case of an 8 magnitude earthquake in Kathmandu with 100,000 killed, 200,000 wounded, 1.5 million homeless, no electricity, water or medical care. The 1934 earthquake destroyed 80 per cent of the homes in Kathmandu Valley, 8,000 people lost their lives, survivors lived in the open for a month in the freezing January cold.
Prime Minister Juddha Sumshere was in Bardiya on a hunting trip. It took him 20 days to get back to Kathmandu on foot. This time, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala got back in two days from Indonesia. Only British India and Japan came to the rescue then, this time there are 34 countries assisting.
Even though the 25 April earthquake was much smaller than the 1934 one, the destruction has been great. Even so, it could have been worse. Come to think of it, the recent quake was a slap in the wrist, a warning to be better prepared in future. This earthquake was not a surprise, but there was very little preparedness. Even though the Army and Police reacted immediately, there was government inertia in response. Medicines and other relief supplies were piled up at the airport, the government was so confused it asked the international community to stop aid.
The result was that many hard-hit areas didn’t get relief, the wounded couldn’t be immediately rescued. Those trapped under Kathmandu’s concrete got the priority while those in remote areas were left out. The rain made things worse for those in shelters and for rescue flights. If the government’s preparedness had been more streamlined, Nepali rescue teams would have been able to be deployed much faster. The political parties came out as utter failures in deploying their cadre for rescue and relief work.
Countries rise from the ruins of crises like these, but that needs courage and hard work. In that respect, the government’s response so far does not elicit much confidence. When he returned to Kathmandu after 20 days in 1934, Juddha Sumshere stood in front of the survivors at Tundikhel and gave a rousing speech. Koirala, on his return, addressed the nation three days later and spoke in platitudes. The Home Minister, which has a central role in relief delivery, is in nay-saying mode: “don’t have”, “no”, or “not allowed”.
The whole world is willing to help us. But our government does not have the capacity to help its own citizens. The government now needs the courage and vision to reconstruct and rehabilitate. It has the chance to turn this crisis into an opportunity to rebuild Nepal’s future.
The fall of Kasthamandap