Nepal – An Earthquake Diary : Mallika Shakya

This is a guest post by MALLIKA SHAKYA

The earthquake in Nepal had been overdue for a while. At one level everyone knew that the 7.9 Richter scale jolt came from the continuing collision between the Indian and Himalayan plates. At another level, Nepalis internalized this seismic science by counterposing 2015 with personal memories of the 1934 earthquake which was the last big one in a seismic belt that shuddered every seventy or so years. Every family had stories about how some or other grand old person in the family perished under the rubble while someone else had a narrow escape, how a particular house needed to be rebuilt from scratch while another could be just mended in parts, or how one brave grand uncle mustered the courage to walk into the rubble to pull out a sack of rice so that the family could eat, so on and so forth.

Through these vernacular memories, Nepalis had unconsciously anticipated another killer earthquake. The one on April 25 was almost a forecast come true though least expected. Not much could be done to prevent the losses; what could a country really do to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude? As the earth shook, people either fled their trembling homes or ducked under the furniture. The survivors prepared themselves for a long haul of heartbreak – that thousands had died and lakhs of homes gone, mountains were angrily fuming with landslides, statues of deities were tossed on the ground falling on their noses, temples razed to the ground. Social media circulated amateur footage capturing the surreal moments of Himalayan avalanches or the world heritage temples collapsing one after the other like a house of cards. The public hurt touched both cultural and material nerves. Only time will tell what long-term effects this hurt will eventually have in the years to come.

The first few hours after the earthquake were sheer chaos. Commuters were stranded on the road as nearby buildings collapsed and the traffic came to a halt. The collapse of the giant city tower added to the shock. Telephones clogged as Nepalis home and abroad scrambled to reach family and friends. People took to social media to compare notes on aftershocks and aftermaths. I was relieved, for example, that a friend tweeted there was no casualty among the tiny row of houses in Haugal in Patan. A particular ‘red house’ had been damaged along with few others in the adjacent neighbourhood. Rumours about looting in the Patan Durbar Square turned out to be false although a senior government official had indeed sent a driver to steal heritage bricks from the collapsed city tower in the Kathmandu side of town. An anthropologist friend confirmed that my maternal relatives were unharmed.

The next day triggered efforts on immediate relief, and with it frustrations about the challenge of getting anything done at all. Very few ATM machines were working thus taking liquidity crunch to a whole new level. While the Nepali diaspora and friends of Nepal abroad were flooded with donations for relief, they found it hard to transmit money since remittance offices in Kathmandu were shut. And it began to rain just when Nepalis learned that tents and tarpaulins were in short supply. Every piece of plastic at hand, ranging from party shades to motorcycle covers, had already been put up as makeshift roofs after the few tent shops in Kathmandu had been swept cleaned. Telephones brought news that tarps were now in short supply all the way in Birgunj on the Nepal-India border. Soon the scramble reached Delhi. Several groups of friends and relief enthusiasts called to ask if I could find some tarp for them, knowing full well I am an anthropologist not a tarpmaster.

Delhi on April 27:the Nepali embassy in Delhi was in shambles and had stopped picking telephone altogether. Reliable reports poured in about how hundreds of tons of relief goods were stranded in the customs in Kathmandu airport and the border check posts while the victims had received almost nothing. To make matters worse, the state issued a draconian circular that all funds and in-kind donations had to mandatorily go to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund before they could be allocated to specific locations for distribution. Nothing was said of a comprehensive plan, if any, for relief and rehabilitation. As the dissent grew among the civil society stalwarts, one or two government officials posted new rulings in their facebook walls. This seems to calm down the social media and nobody pointed out that the customs officials would not clear the goods until the new rules reached them through formal channels. It took several days more before that could happen.

A group of Nepali students in Delhi were gearing up for relief work amid the confusion and chaos. Well- wishers in Europe and America had also begun to identify Delhi as a potential hub from which to organize the relief supply chain but were clueless as to who could be tapped in and how. While funds were pouring in for relief work, it was still difficult to wire money to Kathmandu because banks and remittance agencies were shut. The only people who seemed to know the government system in customs were the businessmen. They confirmed that tarpaulin could indeed be bought in Delhi and loaded on to Kathmandu immediately. Ways were found to receive payments into their Delhi bank accounts for onward paybacks in Kathmandu. We too bought a truck load of tarpaulin and sent it off to Kathmandu.

For all their resilience in aftermath of the earthquake and their appreciation for international assistance on relief, a turning point came a week later on May 3 on the question of Indian (television) media’s reporting of the Nepali crisis. Several complaints surfaced around the conduct of Indian journalists, ranging from the ‘boorish’ nature of their coverage and insensitivity to the plight of the victims being interviewed. A twitter hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia topped the twitter sphere globally on May 3rd, followed by a supportive hashtag from India #DontComeBackIndianMedia. Some considered this an expression of the love-hate relationship between Nepal and India while others heard it as a cry against excessive corporatization of Indian television that had irked the public in both countries. As discussions intensified on international media coverage on Nepal, some pointed out that ‘Nepal scholars abroad’ should have waited for the corpses to cool down bombarding a hurt nation with preachy opinion pieces that turned up in every international platform imaginable. What does it mean for an anthropologist to call a devastated zone ‘my village’ and dying people ‘my people’ from the comforts of the land across the Seven Seas? Equally, what are we to say when elite Nepali men criticized each and every being under the sun but still kowtowed to their own friends in the government? Crises indeed offer moments for everyone to reflect on the contested notions of belonging and hurt.

It does appear that it took whole two weeks before questions of state structure could be brought back in. Nepali state is anything but monolithic. Earthquake or not, we cannot shake off that Nepal let its constituent assembly lapse because the parties could not agree on a common constitution. As the dust is settling on this devastating earthquake, the rumours are circulating freely about how discourses are being engineered: that local and social media are celebrating the work of Nepali army and police while boycotting (opposition) politicians, that state is preempting a new civil society by imposing an awkward aid policy which allows aid accounts registered before earthquake to carry out independent social work while nationalizing all others that came after, that the ethnic aspects of the devastation are being underplayed under faceless dichotomies such as urban vs rural and ‘classquake’. It might as well be that devolution of power was irrelevant during the chaotic first round of the relief work but it cannot be avoided during the second and third phases of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Some are already calling for local elections to facilitate post-earthquake work while others are suspicious that the ruling coalition may use this to pre-empt federalization. The cracks on the ground seems to widen metaphorically as the opposition’s calls for a national (all party) cabinet under the leadership of a ‘visionary’ leader found no echo in the ruling chambers just as civil society concerns about corruption and bad governance were set aside as distraction.

[Mallika Shakya is with South Asian University]

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