Social costs of the Nepal earthquake

The Nepal earthquake on April 25 has all but shattered the already fragile and poverty-stricken economy of Nepal. A natural catastrophe of this magnitude was the last providential straw added by Mother Nature to its already full cup of woes. As of now with homes destroyed and with the South West monsoon only two months away, things don’t look good for the land-locked Himalayan nation. Nepal was previously dogged by a blood-soaked insurgency that lasted more than ten years, and almost split the country into two halves. In human terms around 15,000 people were killed and an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people internally displaced due to the insurgency. During the insurgency, the state generally controlled the cities and urban areas, while the Maoist held sway over the rural areas. Due to this insurgency infrastructure building was put on hold. The government’s ability to transfer aid to Nepal’s far-flung villages has been hampered due to poor road connectivity.  Recently the government formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and another commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances (CIED) to heal the wounds created by the insurgency.

The fact of the matter is that till date there has been a lot of petty politics over the appointments in such truth and reconciliation commissions. As a result no one is expecting much from it. In the meantime, two constituent assemblies have been unable to deliver a rudimentary constitution. The current status is that local level legislators have the key and hold sway over the development process. However, development has not been forthcoming since the nation lacks a constitution. The people continue to suffer at the hands of political parties, who have till date, not promulgated a constitution, just as aid is being diverted on a first come first serve basis. Yet the indomitable human spirit lives on, with inaccessible villages housing perplexingly cheerful people, who live life with honesty, dignity and self-respect.

The Indian state responded to the catastrophe by quickly providing aid. The Air Force responded first with medical stores and teams, thirteen Indian Army helicopters, eighteen army engineering teams, sixteen National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) teams, more than 450 trucks worth of relief supplies. However, one now finds that hiccups have emerged vis a vis the media, and the delivery of used clothes for relief. The probable causes for this are many. There is an angle pertaining to vested interests and the foreign hand. However, Indian civil society too needs to introspect. It seems that its members are increasingly becoming insensitive and patronising to its neighbours. The Nepali is often called “chinky” in India and because of our open borders all Nepalese migrant labour are mixed up with the Gorkhas. This is not to say that one is superior to the other. Nepalese society is deeply respectful of its elders and has as yet not acquired the brashness with which our media questions everything. Due to this the Gorkha, who is perhaps as Indian as anyone of us, is beset with an identity problem.

In a tragedy of this nature, one of the first set of people who move in are those who exploit human misery, the human trafficker. Hailing from Uttarakhand where a disaster just took place, one was shocked to learn during post-disaster discussions that these traffickers are the first to move in and exploit such a situation, beating the aid agencies and NGOs. These human traffickers move in silently like greedy vultures to exploit such a situation. There are by modest estimates around 300,000 Nepali girls working as sex workers and the biggest sufferers are children and young adolescent girls, whose childhoods are denied to them on account of sheer human greed and depravity. Already there have been reports of children being rescued from Bihar, thus confirming post-quake trafficking. Due to the prevalence of an open border, such elements have free access and the local people are extremely vulnerable to their wrongdoings. It is expected that with poverty levels increasing post-earthquake, children and vulnerable girls will be exploited first by these human traffickers.

There are other issues as well. Mental trauma is one of the biggest problems and Nepal is not equipped to handle a tragedy of this nature. Nepal has only one hospital to handle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related mental illnesses. The number of houses required and the speed with which they are required to battle the oncoming avalanche of PTSD-related illnesses is a mind boggling figure of one lakh forty-eight thousand five hundred and seventy-six (1,48, 576). Despite all these impediments in Nepal, the biggest earner was tourism. With its infrastructure destroyed, tourists will now give Nepal a wider berth.

Just a few weeks prior to the disaster, the Government of Nepal (Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare) on April 9 had asked to conduct a survey identifying sensitive districts, where human trafficking is prevalent. However, the Nepalese government has woken up too late post the disaster. Its next order on the same was dated May 8, wherein the Ministry has asked the general public in Kathmandu Valley to dial 104 for the Centre for Children at Risk and those in other districts at the Child Helpline 1098 if children are at risk or lost. It’s too late, as by now, more than thirteen days have elapsed and the damage has probably been done. It’s the social cost that matters more as human life is too precious to be exploited by another human being. For it to stop society needs to be aware. Aid is also required in a big way for schools as most of its buildings have collapsed. Nepal looks over its shoulder to India for help, and India needs to treat Nepal as one of its own.

The author is a retired Brigadier

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