Nepali Times

Just justice

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Reconciliation is not possible without truth and justice for the relatives of those murdered and disappeared ten years ago.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled on a writ rejecting provisions in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act that would have allowed pardons in heinous crimes committed during the conflict, and those already being heard in the civil courts.

The bloodshed of the ten-year Maoist insurgency was accompanied by massive human rights violations by both sides. State security forces perpetrated most of them (summary executions, torture, rape, and forced disappearances) mostly on innocent civilians they suspected to be Maoist sympathisers.

The Maoists, too, ‘exterminated’ ‘class enemies’ after gruesome torture that included dismemberment, disembowelment, crushing bones of victims with boulders and logs, gouging out eyes, burning and burying people alive. There were also many murders that had nothing to do with the war, as the conflict became a convenient excuse to settle personal scores.

The Truth and Reconciliation Act would have allowed many of these crimes to be classified as conflict-related and under the purview of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances (CIED). But since neither side lost the war, the parliamentary parties and the Maoists became part of the Nepali state after 2006. While this has made many elements of the peace process (like the integration of the armies) easier than in other post-conflict countries, it has also allowed the two sides to collude in letting bygones be bygones so that they don’t have to be accountable for conflict-era crimes.

The latest egregious example of this is that while the ruling NC-UML coalition and the opposition Maoist-Madhesi alliance can’t agree on anything to do with the constitution, they had absolutely no problems dividing up the leadership of the two Commissions between themselves.

Both former-ambassador Surya Kiran Gurung in the TRC and former justice of the appellate court Lokendra Mallik at the CIED are decent people who may not blatantly flout the principles of transitional justice and contravene Supreme Court verdicts. Even so, the way the two have been going door-to-door calling on their political mentors and the chiefs of the security forces since their appointment doesn’t send a very encouraging signal about their independence.

The Supreme Court verdict of 26 February shook up the political establishment, and the ghosts of the dead have come back to haunt the security forces. Their carefully laid plans to evade the long arm of the law has suddenly unravelled. While the army and police are not saying much, the verdict has sent shock waves through the Maoist ranks. Their splinter groups came together this week to warn that the Supreme Court decision goes against “the spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement” and they threatened that it could “take the country back to war”. And just so the message is clear, they want to terrorise the people with successive nationwide shutdowns in April unless they get political guarantees against prosecution for war crimes.

The main agenda of the Maoist-led 30 party alliance is supposedly ethnicity-based federalism, but the rump Maoists are using it to shield themselves from war crime trials. More puzzling is why the Madhesi parties are tagging along to protect the Maoists. After all, it is not their fight.

The other mystery is the hush from the internationals who, as erstwhile champions of transitional justice, pumped millions into NGOs tracking war-time human rights violations. Inconsistency, insincerity and geopolitical expediency has silenced them all. The need to protect the process has become more important than doing the right thing.

Even if the top parties come to an agreement on federalism and on the five disputed districts, therefore, it is unlikely that there will be a consensus on the constitution because the real issue here is transitional justice. Proof of this is how UCPN(M) Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal has repeatedly sabotaged efforts by the Madhesi Front leader Bijay Gachhadar to push what should have been a perfectly reasonable compromise formula to break the deadlock on federalism.

By putting a spanner in the works of the transitional justice mechanism, Dahal is letting down tens of thousands of his own cadre and their relatives as well as ordinary civilians who were tortured, executed or disappeared by the Royal Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and the Nepal Police between 1996-2006.

It is important to remember not to forget our past because if we do, we may repeat the horrors. Not to purse justice may send a message to misguided revolutionaries and the state that they can once more get away with crimes against humanity. Only the relatives of the victims have the right to forgive, but we as a nation should never forget.

Disaster averted, unfolding disaster

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Turkish AirlinesOn Wednesday morning at 7:45 a Turkish Airlines Airbus had a near disaster while landing at Kathmandu Airport. But in blocking the only runway of Nepal’s only international airport, it has unleashed a real and unfolding disaster on the country.

It has been four days since the airport was shut for all international operations, more than 80,000 people have been stranded in Kathmandu and inbound airports. For a country so dependent on tourism and movement of migrant labour, the loss to the economy has been colossal.

On Thursday afternoon, an Indian Air Force C130J Hercules aircraft landed on the northern half of the blocked runway with the recovery kit. Other airlines have loaned spare wheels.

An Indian team that managed to lift the nose of the Airbus 330 jet has not been able to move the heavy widebody to clear the runway. Although the nose of the plane has been raised and rests on a truck bed, the body of the plane is resting on two under-wing airbags and the wheels in the main undercarriages have been replaced. Although the plane was moved by 2m on Saturday morning, the wingtip and tail of the plane are still blocking the runway. Crew is trying to drag the plane into the parallel taxiway and then move it to the east helipad.

Domestic flights have been able to operate, but only with smaller aircraft. Buddha Air’s ATR72, for example, needs more runway length which means it hasn’t been able to fly some trunk routes. Nepal has now been cut off from the rest of the world for four days.

A Turkish technical team is arriving in Kathmandu from Istanbul Saturday morning in a small jet. But it is not clear what it can recommend that hasn’t been tried already. Other more drastic options had been put forward: to dismantle the wing and tail section of the plane to remove the runway obstruction. But even this would have taken days.

Turkish Airbus 330 with its nose on the ground

Turkish Airbus 330 with its nose on the ground off the runway at Tribhuvan International Airport on Wednesday.

No one yet has an estimate of the daily losses to the economy from the airport closure, but the hardships for individual passengers has been staggering. Nepali migrant workers are running out of money and have been sleeping on the floors of airports in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi and other airports. Tourists coming to Nepal at the start of the spring trekking season have been stuck in Hong Kong, Dubai, or New Delhi. Doha alone has 3,000 stranded Kathmandu-bound passengers. One of Nepal Airlines jets is in Bangkok another in Dubai.

A major international conference on hydropower has been cancelled, trekking trips have been scrubbed, many international marriages postponed.

“Making another approach”

The Turkish 726 Airbus 330-300 aircraft had been flying all night from Istanbul with 224 passengers and 11 crew on Wednesday morning. The airline had just trained its pilots to carry out the RNP-AR (Required Navigation Performance -Authorisation Required) approach in Kathmandu, which is a more precise satellite GPS-based landing compared to the steeper VOR-DME landings. Qatar, Korean and Druk also use this approach, which allows jets to land at under 1,000m visibility, compared to 3,000m earlier.

On 4 March, visibility in the early morning was at below minimum and 726 circled over Simara for an hour before making an approach. It had to pull up at the last moment because the pilot coldn’t see the runway. “Runway not visible at decision height,” the pilot told Kathmandu Air Traffic Control when asked about the reason for the go-around.

The plane carried out a standard missed approach procedure, turning west and climbing to 10,500ft and then 20 miles south of the airport. By this time, the crew must have been calculating how much fuel it still had on board, and needed enough for a diversion to Dhaka or Lucknow. The captain opted for an immediate second try.

Tower reported visibility at 3,000m but added casually: “Visibility at 1,000m on southeast of the runway.” By the time the plane was at 5,600ft and 3 miles out a patch of fog had started moving in over the threshold. For some reason, despite poor visibility the pilots decided to go ahead and land.

Turkish Airlines crash lands

Turkish Airlines crash lands

Passenger accounts speak of an extremely hard landing “20 times more violent than normal”. The plane veered off the runway to the left, the nose gear collapsed and the Airbus 330 came to rest between taxiway D and E. The grass was soggy with previous two days of rain, and probably saved the plane from careening towards the terminal building and exploding along the way.

Photographs and videos of people coming down the evacuation slides that morning show fog so thick that it is hard to see the plane’s tail from even 15m away. Why the pilot decided to go through with the landing, and why the ATC did not warn of the fog patch are questions that will need to be answered.

Pictures from the crash site taken on Friday show that progress has been made in lifting the plane. But at press time on Saturday morning no one could give a reliable estimate of when the runway will be cleared. Hurdles, literally, remain.

Then there are the longer-term issues of expediting alternate airports. Bhairawa and Pokhara expansions are still two and three years from completion. Kathmandu airport, designed for traffic projects 20 years ago, itself needs urgent upgraded.

Even if the airport reopens this weekend, there will be bedlam at a terminal that is chaotic even at normal times. There are plans to allow landings and takeoffs for 24 hours to clear backed-up flights, but runway lights have also been damaged, the tarmac itself needs to be repaired, and two of the baggage belts are unserviceable.

Even if the Turkish Airlines plane is removed and flights resume, the crisis at Kathmandu airport will not be over.

Read also:

No end to TIA crisis

Airport remains closed

Kathmandu airport closed

In an agitated state

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

The opposition may have to go along with its show of force on Saturday, but should try to get it done with minimum fuss to resume negotiations on the constitution.

Saturday’s show of force at the centre of Kathmandu will prompt many to ask who are behind it, and why. Let’s try to simplify it for you: The NC-UML formed a coalition government after winning the 2013 elections. After trying in vain to come to an agreement on disputed issues in the constitution, the Constituent Assembly missed its 22 January deadline. The NC-UML led government then tried to use its numerical strength in the CA to push the agenda to a vote.

The UCPN(Maoist) and Madhesi parties, still smarting from their election defeat, tried to make a distinction between their ‘revolutionary mandate’ and the ‘election mandate’. This is their way of saying, “we lost but we still want to have our say”.

The CA has been in limbo for over a month now, there have been no negotiations on the constitution draft. The Maoist-Madhesi opposition alliance is determined to go through with its self-described ‘make or break’ protest on Saturday. It’s a risky thing to do, to make public turnout the only indicator of its future existence as a force to be reckoned with. The Maoists have issued a threat to their own cadre that those who don’t show up on the streets will be punished. They must be pretty desperate if one political rally is going to be a life-or-death issue.

In the run-up to Saturday, the Maoists have threatened to go on warpath, unleash another bloodbath, and warned of an Armageddon. “Prachanda, give us the order, we will pull the trigger,” the newly-revived YCL shouted on the streets this week. They have used insurgency-era terminology to designate their top leaders to head the Eastern, Central and Western ‘Commands’ to prepare logistics for the protests. Their message to the people is: “We lost the election, but if the NC-UML don’t agree to our demands and give us a share of power we will kill a whole lot of you again.” It is like brandishing a gun and holding the Nepali people hostage.

As a warning, the opposition has used the excuse of the location of the land revenue and mapping offices in Kaliya and Simara to try to foment unrest. This is playing with fire. They are warning Kathmandu that they are willing to unleash ethnic discord as a political pressure tactic.

From what we can tell, instead of galvanising public anger, the call to the streets has frightened the people about the possibility of anarchy. It has convinced even those who were pro-federalism that the whole formula is fraught. If a national trade artery can be blocked for a week on a political pretext, imagine the kind of blockades we will see in future disputes between provinces. This public mood must have seeped into the consciousness of opposition leaders who have been touring the districts to prepare for the agitation. They must have also seen that the fire they set could easily spread across the Tarai and spiral out of control.

To be sure, the last 12 months of the Koirala-led government has not exactly been a scintillating success. Despite the list of ‘achievements’ he presented this week, the prime minister has fumbled and not shown enough statesmanship to bridge the gap on the constitution with the opposition. Its governance record has been patchy, and even the improvement of the investment climate, for which Koirala tried to take credit, happened mainly because of the proactive role played by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, the NC-UML have backtracked from their demand for a CA vote, and they have put the process on hold. This was the demand of the Maoist-Madhesi alliance on 22 January, so we see no discernible reason why they should push through with their agitation now. It is time for them to reciprocate the gesture.

The opposition has positioned itself into a corner, they cannot backtrack from the streets without losing face, so they must go ahead and try to paint the streets red for a day. Our advice to the Maoist-Madhesi combine would be to go through with their protest if they must, get it over with minimum fuss, and get back to the negotiation table. If there is one option left, that is it.

Read also:

Lengthening the fuse Editorial

Show of strength Om Astha Rai

Reluctant Madhes Navin Jha

Maoists revive YCL

Simara simmers Shyam Gupta

Simara protest called off

Long-term optimist

Friday, January 30th, 2015

We have a joke that Nepal has six directions: north, south, east, west, up and down. Indeed, Nepal is the most vertical country on earth, the terrain rising from 150 ft above sea level on the border with India in the south to more than 29,000 ft on its northern border with China, all within a horizontal distance of only 80 miles. It is this altitude variation that gives Nepal its stupendous scenery, and one of the highest per capita potential for hydropower generation in the world. But you wouldn’t know it visiting Kathmandu today – the capital is suffering 12 hours of daily power cuts.

There are other signs of governance failure. Every day, nearly 1,500 young Nepalis fly out of Kathmandu airport to find work in the Gulf or Malaysia, and as many walk across into India. Twenty percent of Nepal’s population of 30 million is working outside the country. One in every five people in Qatar is from Nepal, there are 600,000 Nepalis working at gas stations and plantations in Malaysia, and at least 2.5 million are migrant workers in India.

A Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 pushed the country’s economic development back decades. Eight years after a ceasefire was signed, Nepal has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, and held two elections for truly representative elections to a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.

The Assembly missed its 22 January deadline on drafting the new constitution after the opposition led by former Maoist rebels resorted to vandalism and chair-throwing to prevent a vote on the draft.

The ruling Nepali Congress and its coalition partners have tried to press home the advantage of their two-third majority in the Assembly to put their draft of the constitution to the vote.

The hope is that this issue will be settled in the House and not on the streets. For once, Nepal’s leaders need to rise to the occasion, see beyond their petty personal interests, and behave like statesmen and not party bosses.  Successive public opinion polls have shown that most Nepalis don’t really care about what kind of federalism of form of government the country has as long as they don’t have to migrate to find work, and have affordable quality health care and education.

The peace process has allowed some former guerrillas to join the national army, investors are just waiting for the politics to stabilise, and one last bit of work remains: writing a new constitution.

The former guerrillas swept the first election in 2008, but the Assembly failed to agree on a new constitution and was dissolved. The Maoists lost the second election in 2013 and are now in the opposition with their regional allies from the plains bordering India. The main point of disagreement is over whether or not Nepal should be a federal republic, and if so, how future provinces should be demarcated and named.

The Maoists and their allies want 8-10 provinces named after ethnic groups which traditionally live in those areas, whereas the centrist parties in the governing coalition propose only 6 provinces with more neutral, geographical names. The Maoists accuse the Nepali Congress of being status-quoists out to protect the privileges of ‘high-caste’ groups from the mountains who have traditionally ruled Nepal, whereas the ruling coalition feels the Maoist formula will lead to ethnic strife and the disintegration of the country. Then there is the royal-right RPP-N that wants to restore the Hindu monarchy, and has been emboldened by its strong performance in the last election, and the rise of the BJP in India.

Despite seemingly intractable differences over federalism in the new constitution, the top leaders of the main political forces have narrowed their differences in the past year. They have also made compromises on other disputed issues such as whether to have a presidential system or retain the current parliamentary model. So, what is holding things up? Power and vanity.

The politicians are stuck not so much because of their ideological differences over the constitution, but because of disagreements about who should lead the government after the constitution is promulgated. The negotiators, who include at least six former prime ministers, are putting the cart before the horse and have squandered their public support. In marathon closed-door meetings over the last few months, they have tried unsuccessfully to come up with an acceptable power-sharing agreement. And that is what is really holding up the constitution.

Despite a ruinous war and the fecklessness of politicians, Nepal has taken dramatic strides since 1990 in reducing poverty, and meeting the United Nations targets for health and education. The key to this achievement has been grassroots democracy that brought up elected local leaders accountable to the people. We know what works, Nepal is living proof that decentralised democracy delivers development.

What the new constitution needs to ensure is that the grievances of groups traditionally excluded from political decision-making are given a voice through genuine political devolution, past injustices are redressed and no one is left behind. A democratic and inclusive constitution would guarantee that.

Luckily for us, Nepal’s two giant neighbours India and China although politically poles apart, both want Nepal to be stable and prosperous. They aren’t really competing for influence or a strategic foothold here. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Kathmandu last week bearing promises of more trade and aid. Indian Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi’s visit in August last year reset bilateral ties and unlocked joint hydropower projects that were stuck. For the first time in decades, Nepal’s investment climate is looking upbeat.

Nepal is at an important crossroad in the coming week. One turn will keep the country bumbling along on the path of continued instability, fractious politics and economic decay. Another will allow us to forge a deal on the constitution, fix the politics and catch up with the rest of the world.

Seeing Nepal’s enormous potential for wasted natural resources and human capital, there is reason to be a short-term pessimist. But one can’t help being a long-term optimist about Nepal.

Read also:

Solutions from within Editorial

The people matter Editorial

Better late than never Om Astha Rai

Sky won’t fall but that’s not the point Damakant Jayshi

Taskless force Editorial 

Preparing to be prepared

Sunday, January 11th, 2015
Kathmandu most vulnerable to earthquakes

Heavily built-up Kathmandu is on top of the list of cities around the world most vulnerable to earthquakes. Pic: Kunda Dixit

National Earthquake Safety Day on 15 January is a reminder to be ready for the coming Big One

When (not if) the next big earthquake strikes Nepal, don’t ask what the government can do for you, ask what your community can do for itself.

Endless political gridlock and dead-end development has distracted government attention from preparing for a long overdue mega-earthquake in Kathmandu, a city experts say is the most vulnerable in the world to seismic risk. A bill to set up a Disaster Risk Management Commission is stuck in parliament, and a turf war between line ministries has left contingency plans in limbo.

“Our best option is to decentralise risk management to the household, village or municipality level,” said Surya Narayan Shrestha, an engineer with the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) which is working with town and village councils in enforcing building codes and training staff to ensure compliance.

The last big earthquake to hit Kathmandu was 8.3 magnitude and struck at 2.30PM on 15 January 1934 killing 8,000 people in the Valley and another 10,000 in the rest of Nepal and India.

Experts predict that an earthquake of similar intensity today would destroy 60 per cent of the buildings in the city, and kill at least 100,000 people outright. Hospitals left standing will be understaffed and overwhelmed with the wounded. Relief will be affected by crippled airports and highways.

Frustrated that the draft Disaster Risk Management Act does not pay sufficient attention to preparedness, and has not been ratified by parliament even after five years, activists and donors are in a dilemma – try to rework it or lobby to finally pass a faulty bill? The Home Ministry is preoccupied with post-disaster response after earthquakes and floods, but risk management is about being ready and should be under the purview of the new commission and coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Interactive map of earthquakes in Nepal since 1255. Click on the circles for more information.

Despite the slow movement on legislation, experts say Nepal is regarded as a role model in the region for its innovative approach in its School Earthquake Safety Program in which the Department of Education works with a consortium of donors to conduct drills and retrofit vulnerable schools. A similar program to strengthen six Kathmandu Valley hospitals to withstand earthquakes and equip them to deal with mass casualties is also in the works.

“The idea is not just to make schools safe but the whole school system,” Shrestha explained, “not just retrofit hospitals but make the hospital system prepared for disasters.”

NSET is working with municipalities and village councils to include compliance to building codes in their minimum performance criteria, encourage self-regulation by architects and contractors to promote seismic resistant designs, and train masons to reinforce self-built homes.

“We have to be prepared to be prepared,” said NSET’s founder Amod Mani Dixit, “earthquakes don’t just kill people they kill countries. We don’t have to wait for the constitution or elections to be ready.” Since it will take time for the government to act, NSET is trying to scale up its activities and involve institutions in disaster preparedness.

Learning from earthquakes elsewhere in the world, a damage assessment of Kathmandu Valley has also been drawn up with maps of open spaces with prepositioned water supply and emergency equipment. All that needs to be done is to put those plans into action.

“To know what an earthquake is like you have to live through one,” says 89-year-old Bhuyu Maharjan of Patan, who was six years old in 1934. “We thought it was the end of the world.” He described the ground moving like waves, deep cracks in the fields. The Taleju Temple in Mangal Bazar collapsed, and 22 people were killed inside the Honacha eatery nearby.

Honacha destroyed in 1934 earthquake

AS FRAGILE AS EGGS:The Honacha eatery in Patan was reconstructed on the same spot where it was destroyed by the 1934 earthquake, killing 22 people. Pic: Kenji Kwok

Eighty years later, eyewitnesses to the Great Earthquake of 1934 (read testimonies, below) describe the terror of trying to flee collapsing buildings, the pall of dust over the city, living in tents in the cold with very little food for weeks.

Shyam Maharjan’s father had gone to the Bagmati River for a bath when the quake struck. He remembers water gushing out of cracks on the ground, and suddenly the river flooded as if it was the monsoon. He had to swim across to get back home. “For many years later, my father was always scared even when there were minor tremors,” Maharjan said.

Man Maya Shakya, 70, remembers her mother telling her of “walking on the roofs of collapsed houses” because the streets were blocked with rubble. Her uncle had been buried in one of the houses, and had to be dug out. There were so many corpses they were piled high and brought to the streets to be cremated.

If that was what it was like when the Valley’s population was only 200,000 and houses were mostly brick and timber, the next Big One in a built-up city of 2.5 million would do much more damage.


“There was so much dust it became dark” as told to Sonia Awale

(Click on photo thumbnail of Bhuyu Maharjan, Indra Nath Aryal and Chirmai Awale for video)

Bhuyu Maharjan, 89

I was playing marbles with one of my friends right there (points across the square). My aunts were washing clothes at that well. Half the house fell on top of the well, and we narrowly escaped. There was dust everywhere, it covered the sun and it suddenly went dark. Everyone came running to the lachhi (square) because it was the only open space, and it was crowded with families. My grandfather’s leg was trapped under one of the fallen buildings. Another man’s leg was crushed by a wooden pillar, and he was yelling for help so they cut the pillar to free his leg. One of my relatives was at a funeral for his dead father when the quake struck. He had just enough time to rush out, but the priest was buried under the building by the river and his body remained there for 16 days until it started to stink.

I was six, and we lived in tents for more than a month surviving on bits of food. Most houses in our neighbourhood were destroyed, my house was damaged and two weeks after the earthquake it collapsed completely. My grandfather borrowed Rs 50 from the government to rebuild our house, he didn’t take more because he was afraid he couldn’t pay it back.

Purna Lal Awale, 91

I was only seven but was working at the brick kiln in Koteswor helping make roof tiles. Everything started shaking, and I ran out. I could see a great cloud of brown dust rising over the city, many houses were buried in Thapathali. I wasn’t afraid, but I was worried about my family in Patan. I ran all the way home praying “Narayan, Narayan.” I passed many buildings that had collapsed. Along the river, there was water and sand gushing out of the ground. Surprisingly, our house was intact. A neighbour had been looking out of the window when the quake struck, and the building collapsed around him. He miraculously survived. We stayed in a tent, but I don’t remember how long. There were many aftershocks.

Indra Nath Aryal, 94

I was ten years old and was travelling to the haat bazar in Jitpur near Birganj. We were just starting to cross this small bridge over a river when everything started swaying. I grabbed the plank just so I wouldn’t fall, if I had been halfway across I would have fallen into the river. I held on to it for two minutes until the shaking stopped. Water and sand was shooting up from the river like fountains. I went back home, but our house was badly damaged.

We pitched tents in the fields and lived there. We borrowed Rs 1,000 to rebuild our house, but later Juddha Sumshere cancelled all our debts. My father’s aunt had back injuries and broke her leg when her house collapsed.

Kamal Mani Dixit, 85

I was four-and-half and still remember it was a school holiday, so all of us children were in the house in Gairidhara. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was playing with my cousin, Kalyan, on the second floor balcony. Suddenly, we heard our aunt shouting at us to get down, and it took us some time to go down the staircase. We had a narrow escape. Ten seconds after we got out of the house a part of it came crashing down.

We lived in tents for weeks after, ten members of a family in one tent. For some reason, I remember a flower growing on the ruins of a collapsed house. I would sit outside the tent and look at the stars. Someone asked me what I was doing, I said I was counting the stars. I still remember him telling me: “There are 900,000, you don’t need to count them. Now go to sleep.”

Chirmai Awale, 95

I was 12, and we were playing near the Ganesh Mandir that afternoon with children from the neighbourhood. Suddenly, everyone started shouting “Hah, hah.” I thought they were trying to scare away the crows, but it was to warn people to get out of their houses. Some of us started crying for our mothers. One shopkeeper narrowly escaped his collapsing house when he rushed out to help us. There was dust everywhere, it was like a fog, we couldn’t see anything at all. The houses on our street had collapsed, some were leaning on each other. Our parents finally located us, and they cried and prayed with joy. I can’t imagine what would have happened if our parents had died. After the earthquake, we couldn’t even find our house everything had collapsed. We lived in tents for months, there was no food because the food stored in our house was buried. Despite all this my pre-arranged marriage went ahead four days after the earthquake. I have seen a lot, suffered a lot. Every time there is a tremor, I get very scared.

How frequent?

It is generally accepted that a major earthquake hits Kathmandu every 80 years. This is based on historical records of earthquakes. However, seismologists say the real frequency of mega-quakes of magnitude 8.0 and above happen about every 500 years.

Before 1934, the last big 8.0M quake was the one in 1255 that shook Kathmandu and killed the king. Since then, there has been no big earthquake in western Nepal, and tectonic strain is building up along the Main Frontal Thrust fault line that traverses the Himalayan foothills. The next Big One is due any day, but between Gorkha and Dehradun in India.

“That doesn’t mean Kathmandu will be spared,” warned Som Nath Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre, “you don’t need an 8 magnitude to destroy Kathmandu, even 7 is enough.”

Sapkota has studied the 8.3 magnitude 1934 earthquake, placing the epicentre not in Bihar as originally thought, but in Sankhuwasabha, and found evidence of a massive rupture zone between Bardibas and Dharan where the terrain has moved 5m.

Watch the NatGeo animation: 70 million years in 2 minutes

The Himalaya was formed by the Indian plate ploughing under the Eurasian landmass 70 million years ago, and this process continues with the India still moving northwards at 2cm a year. According to the elastic rebound theory, an 8 magnitude quake makes the rock layers snap and slip 6m at a time, and Sapkota says it takes about 500 years for enough tension to build up for that to happen.

“The trouble in Nepal is that there is not enough research and too much panic,” Sapkota said.

Kathmandu is prone to severe shaking even during minor quakes because the city is built on clay and sediment of a previous lake, and is also prone to liquefaction.

Quake mascot

The Himalayan red panda has been enlisted as the mascot for awareness about disaster preparedness in Nepal. A cartoon publis service announcement was launched last year. The National Earthquake Safety Day was first marked in 1999 to commemorate the devastating 8.3 earthquake of 15 January, 1934. The PSA has been broadcast on local tv channels, and was made in cooperation with the US Embassy in Kathmandu. The wise panda gives advice to children on what they should do in the classroom if an earthquake strikes. It also advises families to leave their interior doors slightly ajar at all times to prevent them from jamming shut during an earthquake.

Produced by Ayesha Shakya 

Read also:

Unnatural disaster, Editorial

70 years after, Naresh Newar

Thinking the unthinkable

Shudder to think, Editorial


Making schools safer, Bhrikuti Rai

Mixed signals

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

We have to make a constitution that is right for us, not one that fits the rightist agenda in the neighbourhood.

Twice during an India-Nepal think tank conclave in New Delhi’s Habitat Centre this week the power went off. It was proof of just how inured Nepalis and Indians have become to power cuts that the panelist kept on speaking in the darkness, and there were no oohs or aahs from the audience. Everything just went on as if this was the most natural thing in the world.

Ironically, the panel was discussing how the two visits by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal in 2014 rebooted India-Nepal relations and led to dramatic new headway in hydropower projects that had been stuck for decades. The signing of the Power Trade Agreement (PTA) between the two countries and agreements on the Upper Karnali, Arun 3 and Pancheswar on mutually favourable terms could ease power cuts in India and Nepal.

The paradigm shift in politics in India has removed mistrust with Nepal, and lead directly to progress in economic cooperation. Now that there is the political will to move ahead on power, confidence-building measures, border management and security, the question is: how does the Modi administration view the deadlock over the new constitution?

In Kathmandu, with less than a month to go for the 22 January deadline, the upbeat mood of the previous weeks has suddenly soured again. After coming very close to striking a deal on federalism, form of government and election rules the two sides have drifted apart again, press statements have become belligerent. An alliance of Madhesi, Maoist and smaller Janajati parties have announced street agitations to push for their agenda on federalism based on ethnicity.

Whatever the public pronouncements of the leaders, the real disagreement seems still to be over power sharing after January. UCPN(M) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been telling interlocutors that if they agree to make him president he will remove the constitutional logjam. Dahal is clutching at straws, and his announcement of strikes and protests in the run-up to the deadline seems to be a bargaining tactic. The Madhesis are also negotiating for choice berths in a post-January cabinet.

In New Delhi this week, there was a discernible divergence of views between Hindu-right politicians on the one hand, and the bureaucrats with security agencies who had directed India’s Nepal policy since the 12-point agreement of November 2005 on the other.

Lately, the BJP government appears to have been convinced by the foreign policy establishment that with the deadline on the constitution looming, any attempt to dismantle the building blocks of secularism, republicanism and federalism would jeopardise an Indian-brokered peace process which is nearing its end. Reverting back to monarchy or Hindu state would destabilise Nepal, and that would not be in India’s national security interest.

Some sections of the BJP seem to be listening.  In conversations in New Delhi this week, one BJP adviser told us his party’s line was that if the Nepalis wanted to restore the monarchy it was up to them, that Nepal could learn from India’s success with federalism, and that New Delhi wasn’t pressuring Nepal to become a Hindu state. While quite unequivocal, these remarks are in stark contrast to the anti-federal and anti-secular advice given to Nepali politicians by senior BJP figures who have visited Kathmandu in recent months.

It is due to these mixed signals that politicians like Kamal Thapa of the RPP-N and the powerful Khum Bahadur Khadka wing of the NC have been trying hard in the time that is left to derail a secular, federal, republican constitution. With negotiators digging in their heels, positions that were settled long ago are being revived. For example, the UML’s K P Oli has suddenly become vociferously opposed to federalism with ethnic characteristics, even though it was already agreed that the names of future provinces would be finalised by future provincial legislatures. Dahal of the UCPN(M) has suddenly resurrected his call for a form of government with executive presidentship, a post which, presumably, he would fill.

Needless to say, Nepal’s national identity should be defined by our cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity, not just by the Hindu-ness of our past rulers. We don’t need to change that just because some sections of a rightwing party in India thinks so. We need to decentralise and devolve political power, but the Indian union may not exactly be the right model for us. We have to make a constitution that is right for us, not one that fits the right agenda in the neighbourhood.

Read also: 

One month to go, Editorial 

Let’s get back to work, Editorial 

Contentious consensus, Anurag Acharya 

The second coming, Editorial 

Modi-fying Indo-Nepal ties, Damakant Jayshi 

Modifiable relations, Damakant Jayshi 

‘India-open’, Editorial 

Separation of state and temple, Editorial 

Rescuing Kathmandu from its future

Friday, December 12th, 2014

“An advanced city is not where the poor use cars, it’s where even the rich move around in public buses”

Enrique Penalosa on a bicycle

Pedaling to power: Enrique Penalosa on a bicycle in a stretch of the 300 km of bicycle lanes he built in the Colombian capital when he was mayor.

The former mayor of the Colombian capital Enrique Penalosa looked around Kathmandu on a recent trip, and saw many of the same problems of haphazard urbanisation that he tried to solve in Bogotá ten years ago.

Nepal’s urban population will triple in the next 30 years, requiring five times more space for housing, roads and workplaces. The number of vehicles on the roads in Kathmandu will grow even faster. Where will they all fit?

Penalosa, who is now an urban transport consultant, pointed to the unplanned growth around New Baneswor without proper roads and parks, and warned: “In ten years this will be much more congested, it will be utter chaos.”

Yet, he said, it is still not too late for Kathmandu. “Nepal’s advantage is late urbanisation, you have to dare to be different.”

At a recent talk to Nepal’s urban planners, road engineers and transportation officials Penalosa said Nepal’s advantage ironically was that it was poor, which meant it hasn’t had the money to make irreversible mistakes.

“By the time I became mayor of Bogotá, it was already too late to save the city,” said the former mayor who lost the 2007 election for a second term because he had stepped on the toes of too many vested interest groups opposing his emphasis on public transport.

The main challenge for Kathmandu is to plan for a city of 10 million in 30 years so that everyone benefits. The free market does not work in real estate because greed takes precedence over urban planning. A strong municipality needs to implement the concept of eminent domain to buy space for systematic expansion.

“It’s not a technical problem, it is a political one,” explained Penalosa, “you have to take an ideological decision about whether you want to be Amsterdam or Houston. Are you going to build a city for cars or for people?”

In a democratic city, the sidewalk is a more important part of transport infrastructure than roads, efficient public transport is more important than cars. Parks are more important than parking lots.

“An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation,” is one of Penalosa’s famous sound bites. Another one: “A bus with 100 people has the same right as 100 cars, so a bus stuck in a traffic jam is unjust.”

As mayor, Pensalosa revamped Bogotá’s public transport by bringing 35,000 private bus owners into a new company that operated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) called TransMilenio in exclusive lanes that today moves nearly 2 million passengers a day.

“For a city like Kathmandu BRT is not the best solution, it is the only solution,” Penalosa said. , adding that wider roads and more parking space do not solve traffic problems. The idea should be to restrict parking and provide public transport. “Parking is not a constitution right,” said Pensalosa, “who says someone in a car has more right to road space?”

The Kathmandu office of the Asian Development Bank, which organised Pensalosa’s meeting with city planners, is assisting the Kathmandu Sustainable Urban Transport project with a $10 million grant to develop an efficient public transport system and roads with pedestrian space that preserve heritage values.

Said the ADB’s Kenichi Yokoyama: “With the limited space Kathmandu has, relying on private vehicles is not practical, desirable, or sustainable.”

Pensalosa is also an avid promoter of bicycles, and turned parts of Bogotá into a pedestrian and pedal paradise with his Cicloruta concept of a 300km network of bicycle highways. He said: “A healthy city is where a child can ride around safely in a bicycle.”

Watch Enrique Pensalosa on TED Talks

Read also:

Needed: political will for public transport, Elvin L Shrestha

Urban crush, Dewan Rai and Suvayu Dev Pant

The roads not taken, Salil Subedi and Alok Tumbahangphey

…and what about the roads, Dewan Rai

Where have all the zebras gone? Rajjan M Chitrakar

Going microbus crazy, Alok Tumbahangphey

The road to safety, Bhrikuti Rai

Sajha goes green, Sunir Pandey