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Nepal’s Earthquake Politics

Oxford, England.

It finally hit. Nepal’s overdue earthquake. According to its seismic history the fault lines under the Himalayas belch to relieve pressure every seventy years or so. The last big one was in 1934. The next earthquake had been on the radar of the government, international donors and embassies, and cautious citizens who have the means to prioritize disaster preparedness. Some, including government agencies, were better prepared than others, but nothing can really prepare a nation for a disaster of this magnitude.

The earthquake gives a whole new meaning to what state restructuring will entail. Nepal has been trying to rewrite its constitution and restructure the nation to be a federal, democratic republic since 2008. It has been in political stalemate that forced the first constituent assembly to dissolve in 2012, and the second constituent assembly has been hashing out committees since it was elected in 2013. In many ways, the country is far away from the 2006 People’s movement that ousted the king and ended a decade of civil war. Lives have progressed: people have married, babies have been born, kids have become educated, and family members have passed. People are striving to better their prospects, for example multitudes of laborers have gone to other countries as guest workers and young people’s creative entrepreneurial endeavors–opening up museums, cafes and restaurants, and creating street art–are making Nepal’s cities more cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, Nepal has been struggling with what Heather Hindman has termed “long-term provisionality” due to the lack of national political progress and regular turn-over of governments. There have not been local elections since 1997, leaving villages and towns at the mercy of the whims of appointed bureaucrats and, for a time between 2008 and 2012, their local political leaders through “All Party Mechanisms.” Development and resource allocation from the center to the local level has been inconsistent and citizens have few means of accountability.

The Nepali people are a self-reliant bunch. They have to be. They have not had a state that consistently delivers basic goods and services in the lifetime of the young generation. The government plays a minimal role in many people’s lives. Consistent shortages of electricity, water, and fuel have forced communities and families to be creative in building their private infrastructure just to get on with daily life. Many of the Kathmandu valley’s new wells come from communities boring for much needed water and a number of villages have learned if they want a road, they must build it. As I was updating friends in the US on the earthquake and mentioned that the electricity was out, one responded, “Well that’s nothing new,” recalling brownouts of up to sixteen hours a day when she visited me in 2013. According to the Twitter-sphere, solar grids are still working. This is just a small example of how people’s tactics for enduring despite the state are now helping in the earthquake aftermath.

Of course, not all people have the resources to build their own infrastructure and pay for basic necessities that in much of the world are free. It is the poor and those living in rural areas who will suffer the most from the earthquake.  Nepalis will unite to help one another as much as they can. They have done so from around the world since the tremors began. Nepali citizens have proven their unity and commitment to each other over and over again when they are pushed to the limits. Now it is time for the government to do so, too. The largest oversight in the government’s disaster preparedness is the lack of robust, empowered local governance.

What lessons should be taken away from this expected but nonetheless heartbreaking tragedy? Nepal’s constituent assembly government needs to stand true to the promises of the 2006 People’s Movement. The underpinning logic for federalism was to devolve power from the center, Kathmandu, and relegate it to the provinces in order to create more regional autonomy. The ongoing debates over the federal state structure and nomenclature have focused on ethnicity and identity-based rights. These issues are central to addressing the many histories of marginalization and healing the wounds of a decade of civil war. However, these disputes obscure the fact that there is little political will among Nepal’s politicians to decentralize power. All of the parties are stuck in the centralized, top-down mode of governing. But this model is faulty because of its cascading effects. With the top level at an impasse, the middle and local levels are languishing. Imagine if robust local and regional governance had existed when this earthquake hit? Then the relief efforts would not be mimicking the ad hoc approach the central government has taken to governing and state restructuring over the last seven years.

Amanda Snellinger, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.
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