Nepali Times

Getting to the heart of the story

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016
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barkha

Photo: Nepal Literature Festival

In her recently-released book, This Unquiet Land, Indian tv journalist Barkha Dutt exposes chapter-by-chapter the fault lines of modern India: the appalling social inequities, structural violence against women, religious fanaticism, and the chasms of caste and class. And the reaction to the book in India’s public sphere has proven just how entrenched those fault lines are.

Dutt has been pilloried on social media platforms, she has been vilified personally and her liberal agenda on gender, secularism and an open society relentlessly ridiculed. None of this is new for Dutt, of course, she is no stranger to controversy.

“I have realised that as a journalist in the age of Twitter you have to have a thick skin, the attacks can be vituperative and venomous,” Dutt said while attending the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara earlier this week. Indeed, while giving readers an eye-witness account of recent news events in India, This Unquiet Land devotes considerable space to Dutt’s side of the story on how her Iridium sat-phone couldn’t have given away the position of an Indian forward base to Pakistani artillery commanders, why it was essential for a journalist to cover events like the Taj attack live on tv, or her role in the Radia Tape scandal.

Well-wishers advised Dutt to say sorry and get it over with, but as she writes in the introduction to her book: ‘ … there was absolutely no way I was going to apologise for something I hadn’t done … if I have one regret about those hurtful few weeks it’s only that I spent too much energy explaining myself.’

It is Dutt’s tenacity and commitment to the profession that sees her through, values that she was brought up with by her journalist mother. Today, with nearly 3.5 million followers on Twitter Dutt is one of those celebrity journalists who has found that the social web is double-edged: it can amplify her message but also be the medium for hate and anger. A look at Dutt’s Twitter timeline indicates that there is a lot of hate and anger directed at her, most of it from the Hindu right and from insecure men who feel threatened by her gender activism.

This Unquiet Land Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt Aleph, 2015 324 pages, Rs 1,000 hardcover

This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt
Aleph, 2015
324 pages, Rs 1,000 hardcover

Dutt recounts going out to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or the streets of Delhi to cover horrifying rapes and abuse of women, she finds out how caste, class and politics all come into play in protecting perpetrators. We revisit the story of Bhanwari Devi, the Dalit woman who is raped by upper caste men who are too powerful to be apprehended by police. And the gruesome and tragic story of the medical student whose gang rape in a Delhi bus unleashed a firestorm of protests.

Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of that chapter, Dutt goes on to reveal for the first time about being sexually abused herself by a relative when she was ten. The ordeal seems to have shaped her career and fuelled her drive for justice through journalism. But by not playing up her own experience, she lends more credence to the stories of other victims of sexual violence that she covers.

Dutt is a staunch defender of the public service role of media, and is sensitive to generalised criticism of journalism. Yes, tv is dumbing down content, she says, but there is enough space for real debate on real issues. Yes, there are too many talking heads and they are all talking at the same time, but at least people can vent their feelings. KD

However, Dutt is keenly aware of the ‘content hierarchy’ and the way the news agenda is shaped by industry. She sees a need to balance commercialisation of media with independent and relevant content. In answer to a question in Pokhara, she admitted that Indian tv journalists can be boorish and inaccurate like when they parachuted in to cover last year’s earthquake in Nepal, or in not doing enough to highlight the humanitarian impact of the blockade. But that is the way they cover domestic news events in India itself, they don’t have anything against Nepal per se. Come to think of it, that is quite a strong indictment of the way the Indian media operates.

This Unquiet Land is a ‘terrific’ introduction to recent Indian history, and should be required reading for journalists everywhere — especially here in Nepal where the socio-political fault lines are similar. Dutt says the book has allowed her to understand India better, and concludes with what could be her motto: ‘Nothing, no matter how crazy, will stop me in my efforts to get a good story.’

Watch video of Barkha Dutt in Pokhara


Losing paradise

Friday, January 29th, 2016
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HAPPIER TIMES: President Mohamed Nasheed (right) at a climate change conference just before he was ousted in the 2012 coup and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan (left). Nasheed restored democracy in the Maldives and lobbied internationally to save his archipelago nation from sea level rise. Pic: Kunda Dixit

HAPPIER TIMES: President Mohamed Nasheed (right) at a climate change conference just before he was ousted in the 2012 coup and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan (left). Nasheed restored democracy in the Maldives and lobbied internationally to save his archipelago nation from sea level rise. Pic: Kunda Dixit

Passing through Sri Lanka in 1993, I arranged to meet an exiled Maldivian pro-democracy activist at the KFC in Colombo. We talked about the torture he endured while being imprisoned by South Asia’s longest serving leader, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Over drumsticks and hot sauce, we planned coverage of his home country for the news agency I worked for then, Inter Press Service.

His name was Mohamed Nasheed, Anni to friends. Twenty years later, author J J Robinson of the recent book Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy,  is also at KFC Colombo to meet the Maldivian Election Commissioner Fuad Thoufeeq for an interview. Thoufeeq is also in exile after defying a Supreme Court decision ordering him to reject an election that Nasheed had won fair and square in 2013.

This week, Nasheed was freed from prison for medical treatment in the UK after another year in jail. He has spoken out for targeted sanctions against Maldivian officials, and says he will return to serve out the rest of his 13 year jail term.

Slim and athletic, brash and peripatetic, Nasheed had the air of a man in a hurry. Indeed, he was racing against time to institutionalise democracy in his country, while saving it from being wiped off the map by sea level rise. However, this conservative Muslim nation of 350,000 people living on an atoll archipelago was not quite ready for a man such as Nasheed, who was probably more admired abroad than in his own country.

At an International climate change conference near Malé in 2011 Nasheed delivered an impassioned keynote speech, and during the break lined up with other participants for coffee. What a refreshing sight for us from the South Asian mainland where we are used to rulers being fawned over by flunkies and ushered by kowtowing sycophants to the head of the line.

Back in Malé, he waved off his limousine and walked us to his house. He had converted the official residence into the Supreme Court, ironically the same body that cancelled his election win in 2013. He spoke fervently and knowledgeably about turning the Maldives carbon neutral so he had the moral authority to speak out on climate change at international fora. I remember thinking, “When are we ever going to have a leader in Nepal who can speak with such passion and conviction?”

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by J J Robinson Hurst, 2015 336 pages

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by  J J Robinson Hurst, 2015 336 pages

J J Robinson doesn’t hide his admiration for Nasheed, but being a journalist he takes a step back to give us a factual, blow-by-blow account of how an activist came to lead a pro-democracy movement, unseat a dictator, rise to national and global leadership, get overthrown in a coup, still manage to win an election only to be thrown back into prison.

The reader is struck by how a country with the highest per capita GDP in South Asia squandered its future by rejecting a leader who promised a more open society. It wasn’t just the Maldivians who were cheated, the world lost a charismatic environmental campaigner.

Every page in this book reminds us of a familiar malaise: elected demagogues  rigging the system to put themselves in power, then dismantling the very institutions that got them there. The judiciary, legislature, anti-corruption watchdogs are just tools for intimidation and to pursue political vendettas. They stoke religious extremism to make themselves politically invincible. losing paradise

Nepali readers of The Maldives get a chance to trace the trajectories of our two countries. They had Gayoom, we had Gyanendra. Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight global warming, we had one at Kala Pathar. India’s GMR Group bid to upgrade and manage Malé and Kathmandu airports, but were thwarted in both places. Mohammed Waheed Hassan who replaced Nasheed after the coup was stationed in Nepal with UNICEF in 2001.

We share the same Big Brother, and the Maldives coup predates the Nepal blockade as an example of New Delhi’s diplomatic bungling. But just as the Indian Air Force airlifted relief after our earthquake last year, it flew in water to Malé after its desalination plant broke down. Robinson reports on how Indian High Commissioner Dnynaneshwar Manohar Mulay was meeting Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen (now president) even as the coup was unfolding on 7 February 2012. Robinson remembers Mulay being condescending and viceregal in a meeting with fellow Maldivian journalists.

As in Nepal, Western powers have outsourced their foreign policy in the Maldives to India. Represented by Colombo-based western diplomats, they seem clueless and unable to decode the impenetrable politics in Malé, but share suspicions of radical Islam and the need to keep a wary eye on China.

In 2012, Nasheed was putting into place a plan to make the Maldives energy self-reliant by harnessing wind, solar and wave. That plan was being launched on the morning of 7 February, but Nasheed was forced to resign after a mutiny by security forces. As a journalist with Minivan News in Malé, Robinson had a ringside seat to  interesting times. Events continue to unfold as Maldivian youth join ISIS, journalists are hounded and an increasingly paranoid Yameen turns against his own allies.

Robinson gives us a vivid account of the recent history of a small country with a big leader who was changing the course of his country’s history, and helping avert a global climate calamity.

Nasheed had told me in 2010: “What we in the Maldives do is not going to save the planet. But it will save us. And we can tell the world — Look it works.” Reading Robinson’s book, I am even more convinced that the Maldives, and the world, need more leaders like Mohamed Nasheed.

Read also:

Little big country, Kunda Dixit


Stirred, not shaken

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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On National Earthquake Safety Day, it is worth remembering that 25 April 2015 was not the Big One everyone had feared. That one is yet to come.

Nepal 1934 earthquake

Every year, Nepal has been marking 15 January as National Earthquake Safety Day to commemorate the 1934 magnitude 8.3 quake epicentred in Okhaldhunga that killed 10,000 people in Kathmandu Valley. After last April’s disaster, we probably don’t need to be reminded of the devastation earthquakes can cause. But it may be well worth remembering that April was not the Big One everybody had feared — that one is still coming.

Three months before the April event on National Earthquake Safety Day we wrote an Editorial in this space titled ‘Unnatural Disaster’. In words that presaged the disaster, we had said:

It has been accepted wisdom that there is a Great Earthquake in Kathmandu every 80 years and the next big one is due any day. Well, if it’s any comfort, Som Nath Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre tells us that the frequency of 8 magnitude quakes is more like 500 years. The last one in 1255 killed one-third of the Valley’s population, including King Abhaya Malla. There have been smaller quakes every 80-100 years, but as Sapkota says: “You don’t need an 8 magnitude earthquake to destroy Kathmandu, a 7 will do just fine.”

As it turned out, the earthquake three months later on 25 April was not the expected megaquake. Tragic as the loss of life was, the country did not suffer catastrophic nationwide damage. This was one of the most data-rich earthquakes ever in the Himalaya, and the numbers are being analysed. What scientists know so far is that the whole of central Nepal, including Kathmandu Valley, moved southwards by upto 3m. The terrain tilted like a seesaw, with the Mahabharata range rising as the mountains north of Kathmandu dropped.

The earthquake’s aftershocks travelled along a rupture zone eastwards from the epicentre on the Gorkha-Lamjung border. There was very little shaking and no major aftershocks to the west. The earthquake was not strong enough to release all accumulated energy in the block of crust below central Nepal, however, and seems to have fizzled out just the south of Kathmandu Valley. The shaking lasted less than a minute, and the shock waves were of sufficiently low frequency, causing damage to older mud and brick buildings and monuments but sparing most ferro-cement structures. These and other lucky factors, like that the main earthquake struck on a Saturday afternoon, saved many lives. Based on the number of classrooms that were completely destroyed, it is estimated that 75,000 children could have died had the quake happened on a weekday.

Seismologists say that there are now two looming dangers. One is that tectonic tension underneath the central Nepal block was not completely dissipated. This could be let off slowly and safely through what scientists call ‘creep’, but the rock strata could also snap without warning causing a major earthquake epicentred south of Kathmandu. A similar double whammy occurred during the 1833 and 1866 earthquakes in eastern Nepal, when tectonic tension stored underground was not fully released in the main event.

The other even more nightmarish scenario is the seismic gap in western Nepal between Pokhara and Dehradun in India where there hasn’t been a major earthquake for over 500 years, and the accumulated energy could lead to a sudden crustal shift of up to 10m. This is a ticking time bomb, and when (not if) it strikes, it could be a 8.5 magnitude event that will devastate western Nepal, the cities in the Indo-Gangetic plains and also Kathmandu. The April 2015 Earthquake will pale in comparison.

On National Earthquake Safety Day, we should remember not to forget what happened nine months ago. We should be conscious of the fact that we got off relatively lightly. The earthquake was a warning for us to redesign and build seismic resistant homes, schools and public buildings, have a preparedness plan tested for coordination, and be ready not just in the 15 affected districts, but in all 75.

It is worth reminding ourselves that earthquakes don’t kill people, weak houses and bad planning do. Earthquakes should not be considered ‘natural’ disasters, they are manmade. There is a false sense of security among Nepalis after April that multi-storey concrete structures are safer. They will actually be terrible death traps in the next Big One.

The earthquake stirred us, but did not shake us out of our complacency and fatalism.  There are many tottering substandard buildings that will crumble unless we heed the lessons from 2015.

Read also:

Unnatural disaster Editorial

Preparing to be prepared Kunda Dixit

Not if, but when Kunda Dixit

Disastrous management Editorial


Year on year

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015
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2015 could have been worse, here’s hoping 2016 is better

New year

Pic: Bikram Rai

Having survived a year like the one that just ended, 2016 has to turn out  better for Nepal. The country was punished first by God, then by our own incompetent leaders, and now by India. We are glad to bid goodbye to 12 painful months, and would like to think that Nepal’s woes have bottomed out. There is now nowhere to go but up.

Despite everything that went wrong, however, and as incongruous as it may sound during this period of national crisis and hardship, it must be said: things could have been worse.

It starts with the Turkish Airbus that veered off the runway at Kathmandu Airport on 3 March. If the nose wheel hadn’t collapsed and brought the plane to a halt in the soggy grass, it could have been a major catastrophe. As it turned out, Nepal got away with having its international airport closed for four days leaving nearly 100,000 people stranded during the peak tourist season.

Seven weeks later, we were struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and powerful aftershocks that rocked central Nepal for months. Nearly 9,000 people were killed, three million people affected, more than 700,000 buildings were destroyed and Kathmandu’s historic towns damaged.

Yet, as we wrote in this space in May, we got off relatively lightly. The doomsday scenario of a mega-quake in Kathmandu had predicted at least 100,000 fatalities, with unimaginable damage to buildings and infrastructure. The fact that the main quake measured less than 8 magnitude and struck during the daytime on Saturday, the shock waves were of a low frequency which saved most ferro-cement structures, and the shaking lasted less than a minute, saved countless lives. Telephones and electricity were working right away, the highways were not cut off and Kathmandu airport was not damaged. The earthquake was a warning to get our act together before the real Big Ones, which are yet to come.

The earthquake forced guilty politicians to push for regime change, but for that it was first necessary to rush through a new constitution. That was the last element of the peace process, and although it had flaws it was passed by a democratically elected assembly. In their hurry, the Big 3 parties forgot that the Tarai isn’t just a vote bank, but is also populated by Madhesis, Tharus and others. Tarai leaders who had lost the 2013 elections after being thoroughly discredited for their greed and incompetence latched on to this lapse (and fanned the flames) to launch an agitation, which India backed with a blockade of the border.

India’s siege of Nepal has now lasted nearly five months. There could have been a silver lining in all this, and the hardships could have perhaps even be justified, if the blockade had spurred efforts towards self-reliance and trade diversification, and a strategic shift away from dependence on Indian petroleum. We hear assurances from the government, but we don’t yet see a long-term national commitment to those goals.

Meanwhile, the attrition is taking its toll on 28 million Nepalis and the two million homeless earthquake survivors whose misery is multiplied manyfold. Dialysis patients have to cut visits because kidney centres are running out of fuel, hospitals are out of essential drugs, children in tents are dying of cold. This humanitarian disaster is now becoming a crime against humanity. Yet, the world couldn’t be bothered.

Lately, there have been signs that the Oli-led coalition in Kathmandu and the establishment in New Delhi have realised that this isn’t helping anyone, and are looking for an exit. However, the population in the plains has now been so radicalised by the Madhesi Front and brutal state crackdowns that the leaders are no longer in total control of the streets.

Our hope for 2016 is that in the upcoming weeks the two amendments to the constitution will get the nod from parliament, and the proposal to defer provincial delineation for three months will be agreed upon. That will set the stage for confidence rebuilding efforts both between New Delhi and Kathmandu as well as between hills and plains within Nepal.

The egotistical politicians in India and Nepal have recklessly held hostage Nepal’s 28 million long-suffering people. They must end this suffering, and owe us at least this much.

Read also:

Nothing left to say Editorial 

Worst year ever Bidushi Dhungel

Years of living dangerously Anurag Acharya


The enemy within

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015
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With the kind of politicians Nepal is cursed with, we don’t need an India to wreck this country.

Editorial pic

One aspect of the 18-week-long Indian blockade of Nepal that has always baffled us is why New Delhi would want to inflict such harm on a little neighbour, and to a lesser degree, on itself. There are many theories about what ‘India’ really hopes to achieve with this siege, and it is unclear if India knows what India wants. Or maybe, as some have suggested, India cannot say what it really wants.

On the other hand, we are not at all surprised about the rulers in Kathmandu blundering from one mistake to another. Nepalis have never got the government they deserved. In the past 20 years we have been saddled with short-sighted, narrow-minded and greedy rulers. Most politicians since the mid-1990s instead of serving the people, have been self-serving crooks.

In Kathmandu’s corridors of power today it is all about deflecting attention from our own shortcomings to indulge in knee-jerk India-bashing. To be sure, New Delhi has used (some would say incited) the agitation in the plains to justify its blockade so that it can push through its economic and strategic agenda. Such blatant arm-twisting notwithstanding, the communistic UML-Maoist coalition has made matters worse and prolonged the crisis by its own fecklessness. The opposition NC is unmindful of the crisis and is playing politics as usual.

This coalition seems to take vicarious pleasure in playing victim and shifting all the blame on the blockade. Every day, ministers in the Oli administration come up with even more outlandish statements on ending load-shedding or wild promises about harnessing wind power, to mask their own incompetence. They are taking effective steps neither to end the crisis, nor to deal with the shortages and worsening hardships.

Instead of expediting the petroleum purchase deal with China, opening the Kodari border and urgently beginning the upgrade of the Rasuwa highway, all we get is political grandstanding and more rhetoric. Instead of announcing an emergency action plan for incentives to shift to electric public transport or to expedite hydropower projects, we get the same familiar waffling. Rather than immediately announce subsidies for domestic photo-voltaic systems with reverse metering, all we hear are speeches.

The overwhelming impression is of a state machinery and its organs profiting so much from the black market economy in fossil fuels that they want the crisis to last a while longer so they can fill their coffers. Four months into the blockade, we have no plans to fly in medicines and other essentials by air. With blessings from politicians and bureaucrats, NAC, NOC and NEA have their hands deep in the honeypot — the country be damned.

The most callous proof of government incompetence is how oblivious it is to the plight of over 2 million earthquake survivors this winter. Politicians of the NC and the UML have locked horns over the appointment of the CEO of the Reconstruction Authority. They let the bill lapse in parliament, allowed an already appointed CEO to fade into oblivion. The whole country is suffering from the blockade, but the plight of homeless earthquake survivors is doubly perilous. Yet an uncaring state is blissfully unmindful to their predicament.

Sooner or later, as a harsh winter hardens people’s attitudes, the all this flag-waving and nationalism is going to wear thin. Nepalis will point one finger at India, but the other three fingers will point back at our own establishment. The Oli government will be blamed for the failure to resolve the blockade and normalise the supply situation. Which is why the NC and the Madhesi parties want to strike home their advantage, because they know time is not on Oli’s side.

Zooming out from the current crisis, we see the lapses of the past have caught up with us. And we cannot blame India for them. How does a country with the richest hydropower potential in the region suffer such a crippling shortage of electricity? How come a drinking water project for Kathmandu Valley that should have been completed in five years taken 25? Why has foreign investment never taken off despite the gains we made in the early 1990s in attracting them? Why haven’t we been able to hold local elections for village, district and municipal councils for 20 years? Why is the Tarai fast-track moving at a turtle pace? Why is Kathmandu airport in the state it is in? We could go on …

With self-seeking politicians like the ones Nepal has been cursed with, we don’t really need an India to wreck our country.

Read also:

Mopping up Editorial

Calling a blockade a spade Editorial

Tea and biscuits Anurag Acharya

Flag waving Editorial

In Dependence Editorial


Calling a blockade a spade

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
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Gas and fuel shortages

Pic: Gopen Rai

As the tortuous negotiations over Madhesi demands for changes in the constitution drag on in Kathmandu, and 28 million people reel under a two-and-half-month long siege, there are feeble feelers from both sides to seek face-saving ways out of the prolonged deadlock.

The Nepal government senses that the nationalistic chest-thumping is giving way to public anger over shortages, Madhesi leaders similarly feel their slogans against ‘colonial’ Kathmandu are beginning to ring a bit hollow among a people who have suffered a five-month shutdown, and over at the PMO in New Delhi there is creeping disquiet about the growing domestic political backlash as well as rising international concern about its handling of the Nepal mess.

Only the really naive still believe that the border blockade is entirely the result of anger in the Tarai. It is fairly obvious where the strings are being pulled from, and Indian officials and diplomats don’t even try to hide it anymore. But still, realpolitik dictates that the international community is loathe to call a blockade a spade and depart from the party line laid down by the regional cop. Officials in one western capital were so fearful of hurting the feelings of a country with which they just signed a $12 billion trade deal that, in conversation with a visiting Nepali MP this week, blamed Nepal for the blockade of Nepal.

Given the might-makes-right doctrine in international geopolitics, it is totally understandable that the UN cannot name a certain member state responsible for not letting essential supplies through. Still, this week’s statement by the UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake lays out the human cost of this senseless and outlandish siege: 3 million Nepali children under five are under direct risk of death and disease due to shortages of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines.

Indeed, whichever side of this debate you are on (a supporter of the Maoist-UML-RPP coalition government in Kathmandu, a champion of Madhesi rights, or a believer that India has no hand in this blockade) what is undeniable is that what is now happening in Nepal is a humanitarian emergency that is attaining disastrous proportions.

The question that must be asked in New Delhi, Kathmandu and Birganj must be: Whatever the reason, is reprehensible human harm on this scale acceptable in the 21st century? Why are the very people on whose behalf this struggle supposedly being waged made to suffer the most? How does this ensure political stability in Nepal? Is a border siege exonerated by international treaties and humanitarian law? Are there no other more targeted pressure points that a country can legitimately employ to ‘persuade’ a smaller neighbour? Weren’t there other ways for Madhesi activists to compel Kathmandu for better representation, especially when the previous government had even tabled amendments to the constitution?

All this doesn’t let the rulers in Kathmandu off the hook. Prime Minister K P Oli’s strategy is to heap all the blame on India, play the patriot, and hope to garner political brownie points. It has worked so far, but it won’t last. Sooner or later, people waiting in the gas lines, suffering power cuts, shortages and inflation are going to ask: “What are you doing to end our misery?” The answer so far is: nothing.

The NC, UML and Maoists botched emergency relief after the April earthquake, and have let their political rivalry prevent the formation of the Reconstruction Authority. They bear a large part of the blame for being so blinded by greed and ambition that they miscalculated Madhesi and Tharu sentiments with the fast-track constitution in August, allowed tensions to escalate and spread across the plains. They misjudged India, misread cues, and failed to act in time. And with the situation already out of hand, and despite the country’s near-total dependence on India, Prime Minister Oli keeps making things worse by thumbing his nose at New Delhi every chance he gets.

There are ways to exercise tactical acquiescence to gain larger strategic advantage, but our rulers are not versed in those subtleties of international relations.

Read also:

SOS, Editorial

In Dependence, Editorial

‘No time to lose’, Om Astha Rai

In the absence of hope, Bidushi Dhungel

Full-blown economic crisis, Om Astha Rai

…who will bell the cat? Anurag Acharya

Reconstruction in ruins, Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha


Winter emergency for quake survivors

Thursday, November 26th, 2015
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The double impact of the earthquake and blockade pushes already deprived region into deeper crisis this winter

KUNDA DIXIT in GORKHA

Beneath a deep blue Himalayan sky and hemmed in by mountains on all sides, winter has come early to the villages of Upper Gorkha. The pastel green Budi Gandaki tumbles past the settlement of Ghap, which used to be a busy stop for trekkers on the Manaslu trail before the April earthquake.

The earthquake destroyed the Nubri Primary School in Ghap. But delays in approving standard designs for schools and budget allocation for rebuilding  means that seven months after the earthquake, students are taking lessons in 30,000 tented classrooms like these across the mountains of central Nepal.

Down the Valley in Phillim, it is the same story. Eighty students at the residential Buddha Secondary School spend nights in tents because dormitories were damaged by the earthquake. The girls are crammed into a small room in one of few buildings still intact.

For Principal Mukti Adhikari an even more pressing problem is finding enough rice to feed the children. Landslides triggered by the earthquake blocked the trail so supplies haven’t got through. Even the helicopter lifeline is disrupted now because of the blockade.

“The first blockade was the caused by the earthquake, this is our second blockade,” says Adhikari ruefully. “If we can’t find rice we have to close the school and send the children home.”

The blockade hasn’t just hit transportation of supplies to these villages cut off by landslides. A shortage of raw materials in Kathmandu means relief agencies haven’t been able to source enough sleeping bags, blankets and tent material. Even supplies that are available cost up to three times more now.

It is not just the blockade that has deepened the misery of the estimated 2 million people in 14 districts who are facing winter in makeshift shelters. Political disarray in Kathmandu has meant that the Reconstruction Authority is not functioning, and much of the money pledged by international donors lies unspent.

Relief agencies and private groups who were filling the gap have now been hit by the fuel crisis and haven’t been able to get urgent supplies out before winter. The UN, which was operating five MI-8 helicopters had to ground them because of a funding crunch and lack of fuel, and there is a backlog of 1,000 tons of supplies to airlift before it terminates operations by end-December.

“We are concerned that delays caused by the lack of fuel will lead to a second humanitarian crisis this winter,” says the head of DFID in Nepal, Gail Marzetti, “the situation is serious especially for children and the vulnerable.”

DFID has been supporting the airlifts to remote areas, and also works with partners to distribute supplies and manage shelters in hard-to-reach places like Prok, Keraunja and Tsum.

“Our immediate priority is get thicker tents, blankets, sleeping bags, gloves, foam mattresses and smokeless stoves in the next week to as many shelters as possible,” says Sudip Joshi of the Czech relief agency, People In Need, which mobilises local communities to design distribution to the most vulnerable groups first.

Despite the challenges and setbacks, Gorkha is cited as the district which has managed earthquake relief best, coordinating the activities of nearly 100 relief agencies since April. CDO Udhhav Timilsina is a no-nonsense bureaucrat who is impatient to see results, and he is angry about the delay in getting rice to the school in Philim.

This week he set up a task force to ensure that the trail damaged by landslides and floods in Yaru Bagar is immediately repaired so mule trains can take supplies up the Budi Gandaki even if helicopters aren’t available.

Timilsina wants to have a technical assessment before a conference in Pokhara next week that will showcase Gorkha’s experience in earthquake response to see if it can be replicated in some of the other affected districts.

He instructs his team: “We need to get things moving right away. I will not tolerate any more delay in opening the trail.”

The town that fell through the cracks

Winter in Gorkha after earthquake

“For the first two weeks after the earthquake in April we couldn’t find a place to land in Barpak,” recalls Yogendra Mukhiya helicopter pilot with Fishtail Air, “they were flying in everything — even forks and spoons.”

Indeed, being close to the epicenter, Barpak and nearby Laprak were nearly completely destroyed on 25 April. Relief workers and reporters got there first and images of destroyed homes in the two towns went global.

Yet, just across the Budi Gandaki in the villages of Uiya and Keraunja survivors watched rescue and relief helicopters fly up and down the valley with few bothering to land. Nearly all the 402 houses in Keraunja were flattened by the quake and the ones that survived were crushed when a mountainside came down.

Even though the number of people affected and the extent of the damage is much higher, Keraunja has got very little help. The VDC secretary left after the earthquake and hasn’t come back. The homeless have been living in makeshift shelters on terraced farms on nearby slopes now for seven months. Unlike Barpak, the town isn’t as well off and there are fewer Gurkha ex-servicemen sending money home for rebuilding.

Luckily this year’s monsoon was below normal, so the landslide did not cause more destruction. But here at 2,600m the nights are getting bitterly cold and there are nearly 2,000 people living in tents and in tin shacks. Families have firewood stoves inside tents, and this week three homes were destroyed when a fire that swept through the shelter.

Fearing epidemics, Oxfam has now built latrines and the People In Need (PIN) is helping with tents, blankets and smokeless stoves.

“It is a race against time,” says PIN’s Sudip Joshi, “we need to get the supplies in before the snow comes, but we are facing transportation bottlenecks because of the fuel crisis.”

In the longer term, the village needs to be relocated because of the threat posed by the landslide above it. The District Administration in Gorkha is ready to resettle, but local politics has delayed plans.

But most families here would like to stay near their homes, and have no time to think that far ahead. After having survived the earthquake, the landslide, the monsoon and coping with the blockade, the most immediate priority is to muddle through this winter.

Listen to Kunda Dixit’s interview on the BBC on the effects of a ‘blockade’ that’s stopping medicine getting into Nepal.

Listen to Kunda Dixit’s interview on Radio New Zealand

Read also:

Epicentre of reconstruction Tsering Dolker Gurung

“We do not exist” Sahina Shrestha

A race against winter Om Astha Rai

Reconstruction in ruins Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha


 

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