15-21 April 2016 #804

The Year of Living Off-Balance

The most painful lesson taught by the earthquake and its aftermath is that the people of Nepal can expect nothing from the state
Foreign Hand


The end of 2015 AD several months ago felt like a trial run for the bigger hurdle of outlasting 2072 BS, finally put behind us last week. The Nepali year, which will be remembered as one of the country’s worst, was only 12 days old when the great earthquake hit, followed by countless aftershocks, another big quake in May and relentless instability ever since, both seismological and political.

The early months of 2072 taught us many things we never wanted to learn, like distinguishing a harmless crack from one that could bring the house down on top of us. Crash courses (excuse the pun) on support walls, foundations, and soil types taught us more details to worry about, (beware the dreaded ‘black earth’ that liquefies when shook) while the next dose of fear and loathing was only a tremor away.

Any vibration sparked split second decisions whether to flee, dive under the table, hit the bottle or resume former positions. As our education continued apace we learned most aftershocks come in waves, like a mythical Nag’s rhythmic undulations, while others strike in a single shock, reminiscent of a Tata truck hitting the building with a bang. And who can ever forget that awful sound of the earth moving, a noise too primal and destabilising for mere words?

Perhaps the weirdest aftershocks of all were internal, as the brain seemed to shift position in sync with the earth beneath our feet. Your correspondent couldn’t think straight for several days (or was it weeks, months?) and will likely never be the same again. The fact a column mentioning the quake in its opening line was published just 2 weeks previously (see Landscape of Fear) was also rather unnerving, demonstrating a prescience I hereby disavow.

As we grew more adept at guessing the strength and epicenter of each passing shock we also learned, in the interest of maintaining sanity, to ignore the many rumours and amateur seismologists cum shamans who whispered breaking news of the next really big one.

Surely the most painful lesson taught by the earthquake and its aftermath is that the people of Nepal can expect nothing from the state or those they elected to power. The impressive generosity shown by the international community did more to expose the government’s callous incompetence than to actually help those in need. This massive shirking of responsibility, unprecedented in impact if not in style, surely bodes poorly for the future. After all, if 7.8 on the Richter scale can’t shake our political class out of its lethargic indifference then what can?

The hope such a cathartic event would galvanise the leaders to action only produced a rushed, patchwork constitution that set the Tarai ablaze, providing the final excuse to forget the quake victims altogether.

If it took an epic catastrophe to confirm once and for all the concerned authorities simply aren’t concerned (see The Indifferent Republic) the ensuing five month blockade at the Indian border proved conclusively that the government is only in it for the money. Dramatic price hikes and shortages kept society off balance, madly searching for petrol, cooking gas and other essentials while well-connected mafias made black-market fortunes at everyone else’s expense.

As if to prove the god of natural disasters doesn’t play favourites, circumstance ensured that history will condemn all parties equally.

Congress was at the helm when the earth shook, and failed miserably at emergency response, followed by the current UML/Maoist/RPP coalition that seems to have institutionalised negligence and adopted inactivity as its official ideology. There are no heroes in this tale, except the common people who rose to the occasion and helped each other manage in exceptionally trying times.

Nonetheless, there’s much to be grateful for, like still being alive and the astonishing fact Kathmandu wasn’t reduced to rubble. Perhaps the gods who looked over this Valley for centuries haven’t left town in disgust, as many suspected, and still harbour some residual compassion for those on the ground. Another decimal point or two on the scale, a closer epicenter, or a few more seconds of shaking would have been infinitely more devastating. While no time is a good time for an earthquake, high noon on a springtime Saturday, when schools and offices are closed and everyone’s wide awake, is hard to beat and seems too damn lucky to be sheer coincidence.

Though nothing could fully prepare the nation for such a traumatic event, the last 25 years of constant political instability surely helped. In the spirit of New Year 2073, and the great relief we feel at surviving 2072, perhaps it’s time to thank our politicians for all the experience gained while coping with decades of war, strikes, riots, and political chaos. Those lessons in resilience and resourcefulness, learned the hard way from navigating the dysfunctional state our leaders created, proved invaluable in weathering this most difficult of years.

Read also:

Reconstruction in ruins, Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha

Another earthquake hits Nepal

Unofficial bloackade

What’s next in the Madhes?, Navin Jha

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