Himalayan Tragedy

In Nepal the Pols Play Their Game of Thrones, But Winter Is Coming

More than six months after the earthquake that devastated Nepal, the government has yet to begin disbursing $4.1 billion in aid, and the cold is setting in.

11.02.15 6:00 AM ET

KATHMANDU, Nepal — I was here in Kathmandu when the earthquake hit on April 25, 2015, just over six months ago, and I witnessed the instantaneous resilience of the local population—the civic engagement of people from all walks of life—young and old, rich and poor, rolling up their sleeves in a united effort to remove rubble from trapped victims. There were no political motives that day. In the devastated streets of the capital, there were only nameless Nepalis trying to relieve the suffering of fellow nameless Nepalis.

In spite of the horror, I was proud to experience humanity in its finest hour. But the story since has not been so edifying. In fact, it’s been shameful

Last April, the moment the news of the earthquake broke, governments, institutions and individuals from all over the world rushed to Nepal’s assistance, either through direct relief efforts or donations. In the end, the international community—both public and private—pledged over $4.1 billion dollars to implement relief and reconstruction here.

Every penny was needed: Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. And in addition to the 7.6 magnitude earthquake in April, a second 7.3 quake struck Nepal on May 12. The combined devastation resulted in almost 9,000 deaths, with many more thousands injured, and a third of Nepal’s population—approximately eight million people—having their lives disrupted in one serious way or another. An estimated 850,000 homes were either destroyed or badly damaged. In some districts, over 90 percent of the buildings were flattened.

In the immediate aftermath, the Nepal Army’s response to the crisis was particularly outstanding, eclipsing the civilian government’s efforts to provide leadership. Other nations’ militaries joined forces under the supervision of the Nepal Army’s disaster relief operation “Sankat Mochan.” The Indian Army played the most significant international role. The United Nations and other major non-governmental organizations dove in, helping to pick up the slack left by a seemingly directionless political administration.

In June, finally, the government proposed a bill that would establish the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), a body slated to handle the disbursement of the $4.1 billon that had poured in from international well wishers.

And then nothing happened.

As unbelievable as this may sound, as of today, the NRA is still not operational and the $4.1 billion have not been distributed.

When this became apparent, donors expressed outrage and the government, by way of excusing itself, explained that there had been a “parliamentary oversight”: There was a time limitation to vote on the bill and the government had simply forgotten to enact it, thus inadvertently allowing the NRA deadline to lapse.

Analysts beg to differ.  The reason the National Reconstruction Authority was “forgotten” was because the leaders of the Constituent Assembly, widely referred to as the CA, had put their priorities elsewhere. Come hell or high water or earthquakes they meant to stay focused on the CA’s primary responsibility, the completion of the new constitution.

There was an irony here:  For nearly eight years, the CA had dragged its feet and allowed itself to be distracted by inter-political haggling, thus failing to draft a new charter. But by early 2015, the completion of the constitution was put on the fast track and the politicians suddenly became hell-bent on getting the draft approved. With that accomplished, a new government could immediately be formed and then it could be established what to do about earthquake relief and—not so incidentally—which party would hold the reins of NRA disbursement. 

Last month, I interviewed the originally designated CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority, Govinda Raj Pokharel. His frustration was evident.  Members of Parliament “cannot always accuse the government, because they are also responsible. That—blaming someone else—is our biggest challenge and that will bring chaos,” sad Pokharel. “All these broken societies—many single women, orphans and many others—many unwanted social activities can happen, which can destabilize our rural system. People will migrate and there will be less production in rural areas. That will be the negative side of not managing reconstruction activities well.”

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As of today, Pokharel remains in limbo about the status of his job. In the second week of October, the old Nepali Congress Party’s leadership was scuttled and a new government was installed, headed by a new prime minister, KP Sharma Oli. Oli is the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and it seems likely that someone from his party will replace Pokharel. In Nepali politics, continuity always plays second fiddle to shoring up a party’s power base.

The point is this: Because of the Constituent Asslembly’s preoccupation with completing the constitution writing, the earthquake disaster was kept on the backburner. Reconstruction funds were frozen from the get-go and, even worse, remain frozen today.

People who lost their homes have received little aid beyond an initial $150 per-household government payout. They were promised $2,000, but until the legitimate status of the NRA is established, no additional funds can go out.

Likewise, because of the NRA fiasco, building codes for new construction have been slow to be published, creating mounting frustration for those—including NGOs—who would like to get started on new construction before winter sets in. In the absence of clear guidelines, no one really knows what the government’s support for reconstruction will look like. To give but one example, last month a major Indian NGO abandoned its plans to build 100 health posts because the Nepal government insisted on “lavish” demands including marble floors and granite work surfaces. Someone in the bureaucracy was trying to get rich on the down low.

Why would the Nepal government sideline earthquake relief efforts in favor of promulgating a new constitution? The answer requires some historical backtracking.

At the end of the 10-year conflict with the Maoists, the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, which highlighted social reform, giving a big nod to minority groups—particularly the Madhesi and Tharus in the south, who constitute approximately 40 percent of Nepal’s population. In 2008, the provisional government endorsed an eight-point agreement with ethnic minorities, accepting their demands for increased representation through a federal structure with autonomous regions—although no one pretended to know how these federal states might look on a map.

Then, after the historical 2008 elections in which the Maoists prevailed, the CA declared Nepal to be a federal democratic republic. The monarchy was abolished. A new charter was to be drafted and promulgated within two years. That was the mandate. During those two years, the CA would come to an agreement as to how “federalism” in Nepal would be defined.

It didn’t happen.

As Minister of Commerce and Supplies Sunil Bahadur Thapa told me in a recent interview, the CA drifted away from a true democratic process almost immediately:

“It went wrong after the 2008 elections,” he said. “Of course the Maoists were in total command of the CA. No doubt about it. But I’m speaking about all the major political parties. The party leaders did not take their own MPs or CA members into their confidence, when beginning the writing of a new constitution. All the decision-making took place outside the CA building. The formulation of a new constitution took place in private homes. If I remember correctly, there were only 16 to 20 people who were really involved in writing the constitution—this out of 601 CA members. Of these 16 to 20 people, only 10 were elected members of the CA. The rest of the “writers” were people who were defeated in the elections. That was one of the major mistakes that the political parties made. To make matters worse, the issues that people in the south had fought for were never introduced in the CA for discussion.”

Fast-forward to 2015. The earthquakes put Nepal under the international klieg lights. In a sense, the country had two runaway trains to deal with. One was created by Mother Nature. The other was man-made, spearheaded by the leaders of the three main political parties, carving the country into federal states.

The international community (except for China, which kept mum) cautioned the leaders to slow down a little, to take more time and rethink the manner in which they were delineating the boundaries of the federal states—particularly around the traditionally marginalized communities in the south.

Nepal’s leading politicians cried “foul” and warned the international community—particularly India, which has long (and deservedly) had the reputation of being Nepal’s overbearing neighbor—to stay out of Nepal’s internal affairs. The party leaders, successfully playing the nationalist card, raised their heads high and frog-marched the charter to its September 20th promulgation.

Then came a predictable, and predicted, response. The southern minority groups felt betrayed and struck back at the Kathmandu-centric power structure. They blockaded the Indian border crossings, which prevented essential items—petroleum products being the most important—from entering the landlocked nation of Nepal. 

India poured salt on the wound by instructing its Border Security Force to hold up trucks attempting to make their way into Nepal.  The Indian blockade was and is not an “official” one, according to India. New Delhi claims it is only concerned about the safety of trucks coming into Nepal from its side of the border. 

The vast majority of Nepalis find India’s explanation ludicrous and insulting as Nepalis who lost everything during the earthquakes—continue silently subsisting in makeshift dwellings.

Summer is the monsoon season in Nepal. This year, heavy downpours washed away crucial roads, which, in turn, eliminated rescue operations from reaching remote and even not-so-remote areas hardest hit by the earthquakes that hit in the late spring. There was no question of being able to construct new buildings during the monsoon. The most one could do was to distribute tarps and corrugated metal roofing to fend off the rains until September.

But just when the skies began to clear, the blockades were imposed, thereby eliminating the ability of vehicles to deliver fuel, supplies and construction materials to the devastated areas. As a result, the odds of helping earthquake victims before the onset of winter grow worse by the day. Without fuel, over 80,000 families in dire need of durable shelter and numerous relief items have been stranded and left wondering how they will survive the impending cold weather.

Fuel scarcity has spread to all sectors. The government has imposed strict limitations on the amount of petrol Nepalis can buy at any one time. The waiting lines stretch back kilometers. The price of fuel has skyrocketed and the black market is thriving. Some people have reported buying petrol ten times the regular price. Likewise, cooking gas is all but unavailable, prompting even well heeled families to resort to wood-burning stoves. As a result, in some areas, protected forests are being cut for firewood.

Food prices have become wildly inflated, in some cases as much as 100 percent. Medical supplies are running out at the hospitals. Ambulances can no longer operate. Schools have been shut. Businesses have closed their doors. Internet services, which require generators during load-sharing hours, are threatening to halt services. Construction materials have soared in price.

Tourism, which accounts for a significant percentage of Nepal’s GDP, has all but evaporated; Chinese Eastern Airlines cancelled all flights to Nepal, citing the unavailability of aviation fuel at the Kathmandu airport, and Chinese tourists have evanesced. The economy is bleeding in every direction. It is Nepal’s number one preoccupation.

Even if the blockades were lifted tomorrow and fuel became easily available, even if the government reinstated the NRA overnight—two very unlikely scenarios—many experts say it is already too late to “winterize” the most remote areas in Nepal. The window before winter arrives in Nepal has now narrowed down to one or two more weeks.

According to a statement issued last month by the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Nepal, “It is of critical importance to deliver supplies to the trailheads by the end of October, as the passes in the Himalayas will be at increased risk of being blocked by snowfall." That clock is still ticking.

A backlog of 1,200 metric tons of shelter and non-food items is already stuck in storage warehouses, unable to reach targeted earthquake communities—first because of the monsoons and now because of the scarcity of fuel. The recent monsoons limited road and air delivery to remote regions. With winter arriving within the next fortnight, it will be a race to get even these pre-arranged relief packages delivered to the intended villages before the first big snow storm. 

The devastated communities know only too well that time is running out for them. They  survived the monsoon, but sub-zero temperatures and snow-blocked mountain passes will be far more challenging—particularly for the elderly, children and pregnant women. Cold-related illnesses are inevitable. People are going to freeze to death in Nepal this winter. The question is: how many? Communication options are so limited that we may not really know until spring.

Meanwhile, southern unrest continues, and politicians—inside and outside the nation’s borders—scramble to secure short-term victories, the victims of the earthquakes stare at their watches and check the temperature outside.

Winter is coming. Death is coming.