Nepal has had the possibility of emerging as the exemplary nation-state of South Asia. But even if we set aside deep history, we see that in the modern era, relentless disasters—political and natural—have blocked the spirit and the efforts of the people of Nepal. There’s nothing to do but to try to convert the Great Nepal Earthquake of 2015 into an opportunity to transform the conduct of politics and in the process lift up Nepal at least from the status of a ‘least developed nation’ to that of a ‘developing nation’. For a beginning to be made in that direction, the polity must be jolted out of its stupor. Only then can the advantages Nepal has—of nature, history and demography—be fully realised.
The quaking of the earth on April 25 has in a literal and figurative sense shaken up politicians. Not only have they been reminded of the impermanence of life itself, they have realised how easy it is for them to find themselves out of the limelight. This is being brought home to them by the street protests against the authorities’ lethargy and bewilderment in organising relief. Indeed, the sirsasta (seniormost) leaders of the political parties—the Nepali Congress, the CPN-UML, the Maoists and the Madhesi parties—who have created an incestuous syndicate that rules under the thin guise of democracy may have realised what a sideshow they have become. Even if their hands have been in the till rather than on the pulse of the people, politicians would have realised the deep distrust people feel for them, chiefly because of the all-pervasive corruption, the refusal to revive the economy and for having kept the country in interminable limbo. Perhaps it was the knowledge of this distrust that prevented the sirsasta from coming out and leading the relief and rescue operations.
Sadly, the stalled economy has meant that a huge proportion of Nepal’s young workforce is either in India or in other countries as job migrants. So there were few able-bodied hands to help extricate the dead and injured from the rubble. The traditional community institutions that would have risen to help in such a calamity have collapsed under the onslaught of modernisation. And politicians have killed off local government by not calling district- and village-level elections for a dozen years! This is bound to affect relief and reconstruction efforts.
The temblor has indeed toppled the high pedestal politicians gave themselves. But there’s still hope for them: if there is a lesson to be learnt from the death, injury, pain and destruction, the polity must undergo course correction. What this means is the lethargic coalition government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala must first of all rev up the lacklustre rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Perhaps a beginning could be made by appointing a cabinet minister for emergency earthquake relief. Koirala must also consider establishing a national reconstruction authority to ensure there is a humane, efficient and transparent response to the massive task of societal revival. As for the political parties, if they learn anything at all from the quake, as soon as the dust settles (literally), they will stop the wrangling and revive the deadlocked process within the Constituent Assembly, adopt a constitution, and announce local body elections. People have been left to fend for themselves too long, and while that the world is in awe of the resilience of Nepal’s citizenry, everything has a breaking point.
The willpower of the citizenry was in ample display at the Dhulikhel Hospital on April 25 as it became the hub for rescue and treatment for the entire hard-hit region east of Kathmandu Valley. Here, doctors, the local administration, army, police and scores of community activists immediately sprang into action to provide high-quality care to the poorest and most grievously injured.
The tradition in Nepal has been to refer to historical events with references of ’before’ and ‘after’—particularly with great earthquakes. The legacy of the Great Nepal Earthquake of 2015 should be that it shook up the seniormost politicians and civil society stalwarts enough so that they began thinking for the people. This, in one go, will deliver both a constitution and local elections.
Dr Ramkant Makaju Shrestha, founder of the Dhulikhel Hospital, told this writer, “This is a war where there are no enemies. So we can cooperate and achieve our goal without playing the blame game.” He was referring to his hospital’s response to the earthquake, but it could well apply to the never-ending political tremors that have kept Nepal shaky—and the Nepalese unfulfilled.
(Kanak Mani Dixit is publisher, Himal magazine)