‘In Nepal, there’s a culture of mismanaging funds meant for conflict-affected people’

‘In Nepal, there’s a culture of mismanaging funds meant for conflict-affected people’

It is difficult to understand Nepal’s slow post-earthquake response and the problematic way it has handled the border crisis without understanding the civil war that raged in the country between 1996 and 2006, claiming the lives of an estimated 17,000 people. The uprising—the People’s War, as it has been called—led to mass support for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which was elected to power in 2008, forming the nation’s first constituent assembly. The Maoist policy of republicanism, proportional representation and federalism became, nearly 10 years after the end of the war, expectations for many in the run-up to the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in September. This charter was controversial with groups in the Terai region, who see their already limited political influence as marginalised, and it led to the border crisis that has seen a severe shortage of fuel, medicine and food supplies around the country.

Jaya Puri Gharti was a leading member of the Maoist party. President of the All Nepal Women Association (Revolutionary) during the conflict, she served as the cabinet minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare during the Maoists’ term in government. Gharti is from Rolpa, the heartland of the Maoist insurgency, and a member of the historically marginalised Magar community. In this interview, she speaks about the issues facing Nepal today, and the difficult road to reconciliation after the war.

Has the situation improved since the end of the civil war?

It is comparatively better. But I hoped the country would ensure the rights of people, economic growth, justice, peace. There are still things that need to be met. That was obstructed due to the earthquake and fuel crisis.

Children play among the ruins of their home in a village in Kathmandu. Thousands of earthquake victims are still waiting for government help in reconstruction. (Photo: Patrick Ward)

Children play among the ruins of their home in a village in Kathmandu. Thousands of earthquake victims are still waiting for government help in reconstruction. Photo: Patrick Ward

How so?

They wanted a constitution that ensured the full rights of people, and after the earthquake they rushed for consensus to write the constitution. So it was rushed, and there were some gaps due to that rush. There was a big meeting for reconstruction after the earthquake, but progress slowed down. The international community provided funds, but the government has been slow.

The ruling parties didn’t consider that there would be a crisis in the Terai. It was a mistake. If they had made a small effort it could have been resolved. For example, Madhes would have been given more districts. This could have resolved the crisis. But India is imposing [a blockade]—it’s not justifiable. It’s against human rights and international rules, treaties and relationships.

Could the response to the earthquake have been better?

The government has not been able to tackle the issue as required. The political situation is so difficult. I am worried about the situation now. I suggest the government take it more seriously, the earthquake and the blockade.

After the deep divisions in Nepal during the civil war, how has the country united itself?

After the earthquake and the blockade, we realised we should be together, but perhaps there are still some gaps. For example, not all parties were involved in the constitutional process. There is still chance to bring all the parties together. But the leaderships often think traditionally, with narrow thinking.

“International development partners are not targeting funds to actual need. Almost three-quarters of the funds have gone to the NGO circle ruled by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)”

How was the rehabilitation of those affected during the conflict?

Nepal has got lots of money for rehabilitation. But that has disappeared at the top. People in real need haven’t benefited from that. In Nepal, there is a culture of mismanaging funds, for conflict-affected people, earthquake victims. They are mishandled by the authorities, which is not good.

International development partners are not targeting funds to actual need. Almost three-quarters of the funds have gone to the NGO circle ruled by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), who handle 75 per cent of the budget; 25 per cent belongs to the Nepal Congress and others. Maoist cadres have received less than one per cent.

During the civil war we had a different perspective of the NGOs. Now we realise we should cooperate with them. We were against the NGOs in the wartime. So the NGO international development partners are not fully trusting. We need to build that trust.

Is there a problem of accountability with the NGOs?

Only 10 to 15 per cent of NGOs are fully accountable. I observed that as a minister. I tried to get at least 75 per cent accountable, if not 100 per cent. I tried to put them on track, but our government collapsed. One change I could achieve is that before, every international NGO had to register in Kathmandu, and I was able to establish regional offices instead. But my successor, a male minister, collapsed that.


Due to his thinking, he was not committed to change. People weren’t able to all come to Kathmandu. But he unfortunately collapsed my policy. We had fundamental differences.

After such a high level of support following the civil war, why did the Maoist government collapse?

It was difficult to meet the needs promised in the war. There were also factions within our party. I am confident the issues raised by my party are still true. Issues like a republican state, federalism, proportional representation, secularism. The NC, UML were against these issues in the beginning, but they were all eventually reflected in the constitution.

What the failure was, we could not convince the public of the issues raised by the Maoists. We could not convince people that credit should go to our party. And fractures in the party meant we could not win the election. And the other parties were tricky; the Maoists were straightforward.

Though the party is now weaker, our policies have all been incorporated by other parties. The NC was against the idea of a republic. The UML would not accept proportional representation and federalism, now they have.

When I was in parliament, we once went to the UK to learn about decentralisation of power. I was fortunate to observe the UK parliament. But in Nepal we discuss basic needs, like food and shelter. When I was there, the discussion in parliament was about controlling mice!

People cram aboard buses during the fuel crisis. The lack of petrol is blamed on an Indian blockade of goods into Nepal, following a new constitution. <em>Photo: Patrick Ward</em>

People cram aboard buses during the fuel crisis. The lack of petrol is blamed on an Indian blockade of essential goods into Nepal, following its new constitution. Photo: Patrick Ward

Why did you first become involved in the People’s War?

I was just a student at that time. I had heard about the Communist Party and Communist Manifesto, and that the Communist Party helped people in the region and was against gender and ethnic discrimination. In my locality, there was a lot of violence against women. Women couldn’t go to school or be educated. There was also extreme poverty. I was inspired to become involved in the movement by that poverty. It was difficult even to buy goods.

My family was not very poor at first, but my father was a gambler. He lost his property and we became poor. My mother was interested in education, and so my sister and a friend were the first female students to go to school. I went to school sometime after that.

When I was a Year 4 student in school, I went to school wearing pyjama trousers. The teacher beat me for wearing them. Later, when I was elected to the Constituent Assembly and became a minister, that same teacher approached me. I was responsible to hear teachers’ problems. It took more than ten years for the teacher to appreciate me. I appreciate the teacher in turn for pushing me.

“Women now think they should get justice, and not face discrimination. Women have felt more changes than men.”

How much has changed in the Nepali society since you were in school?

Women now think they should get justice, and not face discrimination. Most women think this way now. Patriarchy is still in male minds, but they have started to think it’s not justifiable to discriminate. Women have felt more changes than men.

Could you ever imagine, when you were a child, that one day you would become a government minister?

Never. I just wished to reduce injustice, but never imagined I would be a minister.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

‘Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis’

Nearly six months after the earthquake, relief work is still vital for thousands of Nepalis. Hundreds of families are short of food, a cause for grave concern with the winter approaching, particularly for those living in remote areas.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme is the largest humanitarian organisation dedicated to hunger and food security in the world, and has had a strong presence in Nepal since April. A vital aspect of its operations is finding ways to get food to the people who need it most, often across incredibly inhospitable terrain. WFP says it has supplied food to more than 2 million people in earthquake-affected regions of Nepal, using trucks, tractors and helicopters.

Namita Rao and Ritu Panchal met up with Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, at their base in Kathmandu to understand the intricacies of their operations, the constraints they are facing, and the measures they are taking to prepare for the future. Excerpts:

What are your basic roles at WFP in Nepal?

John: Whenever there is a big scale emergency, the WFP activates a cluster system where we take on a leadership role and coordinate with other humanitarian organisations, NGOs, nonprofits and the UN as well as the local government. This structure came about after the 2004 tsunami. So instead of having hundreds of organisations going in at the same time and doing things without coordination, risking unequal distribution of food and wasting food due to profligacy, WFP takes the lead on logistics cluster operations and maximises the geographical spread. In the beginning of an emergency, we get together all the logistics personnel from other humanitarian organisations that are involved in the immediate response to find out the main logistic bottlenecks we are facing. We ask other organisations what their immediate requirement is and then send out help. WFP is mostly the provider of last resort. If there is no other way, we will go in and set up base for all organisations. The response action for the delivery of cargo includes bringing in supplies from the airplanes in batches and storing them at the Humanitarian Staging Area, a common storage area for all the different organisations.

“We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest.”

Dorothy: We came up with the idea of Remote Access Operations to deliver cargo to the farthest villages of the land and to repair trails for transporting cargo. Most people in Nepal live in high mountainous regions. There are no roads and everything is done by trails. After the earthquake, all of the trails were destroyed and the monsoon that came in almost immediately exacerbated the ability of people to move around, as well as to move relief material on ground to the areas that have no access. Helicopters ease the process in such cases, but they are also the most expensive means to do so. We’ve been rebuilding trails all over the country and have been using the expertise of mountaineers who climb Annapurna and Everest. These specialists are very helpful in identifying safety and security issues not only for the humanitarian people involved but also for the locals who live in those areas. We have also gone all the way around using mules, porters and yaks to move the cargo. A lot of pack animals support the high altitude villages and that takes 15 days to deliver from the warehouse all the way up and over a long trek. We recently passed the milestones of 1,000 km of trail and 1,000 tonnes of cargo committed to be moved by RAO.

Dorothy Hector, National Coordinator for Remote Access Operations in Nepal, and John Myraunet, National Logistics Cluster Coordinator, WFP.

Dorothy Hector and John Myraunet. The WFP is working to ensure food and relief supplies reach even the remotest towns and villages in Nepal. Photo: Ritu Panchal

WFP is in its third phase of relief work. Could you explain what that consists of?

D: In the third phase of food delivery, there is no longer general delivery in terms of free food. We have started delivering food for work. The communities have to now carry out a few days’ work a month with our partner organisations in the field to receive the food. There are other areas that we’ve assessed where there is no food need necessarily but there is a need for the ability to purchase things and have buying power. So we’re doing a cash-for-work programme in those areas that are closer to the towns and markets. The work that is assigned to people does not require any advanced skill, just the use of  basic equipment for cleaning off trails, creating access to local clinics and local water points, doing minor works in the village to make their day-to-day life better.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Supplies are loaded up for distribution from the WFP base in Kathmandu. The need for food in many remote areas is still of high importance, although now it is usually provided in exchange for work. Photo: Ritu Panchal

Have there been any frustrations with the relief work that has been coordinated and do you think it could have been handled better?

D: I think that there is no emergency at anytime, anywhere that doesn’t have frustrations and challenges that need to be worked out. We always learn from mistakes and that’s the important thing, to have the ability to look at what you’ve done and make a list of lessons learnt and implement the necessary changes. There’s no such thing as a perfect solution, especially in a disaster. Emergencies are always ebbing and flowing and changing, on a moment-to-moment basis. Here, during the monsoon, the trails change from minute to minute. While delivering cargo, we might have set up a whole portering operation and say, “Yes, we are going to get your food tomorrow,” and we arrive at the trail and we have all the food ready and the porters are standing there and the next thing you know the monsoon has caused a landslide and we’ve lost the trail. This happened to us a couple of times and we sat there at the end of the road thinking, “Okay, you’re not going to get your food tomorrow.” We then got to work immediately fixing the trail and the food was delivered to them a few weeks later. There are things for which we just have to be flexible and work with everyone we can and not be afraid to say, “Yup, we did that wrong and we’ve got to do it right the next time.”

J: Having proper preparedness and investing in preparedness has been a real good lesson to learn from this one. The state of emergency in Nepal has been used as an example at the global level because we had this Humanitarian Staging Area in place before the emergency and that enabled us to start immediately instead of waiting and using a lot of money on flying all the equipment here. Having had this cluster system in place for a while, we see more and more willingness from the different humanitarian acts to work together. So while before it might have been more individually done, now they’re coming together and are sharing information they have with all of the organisations to give a better response together.

What kind of cooperation have you had from the government?

D: It has been incredible from my experience. John can tell you that in every logistics meeting we have had a government representative. The Ministry of Home Affairs has an office right here and we’ve got a coordinator between the civilian and the humanitarian actors in the military. We’ve got a significant amount of activity and support from them as we are here to help the government of Nepal and not to undermine them in any way. We work with them and we work with their approval in the districts. It’s all about coordinating with them, understanding their needs and making sure that our plans are aligned with what their intentions are so that we are actually acting on their behalf in their areas.

There were reports about the suspension of United Nations Humanitarian Air Service due to shortage of funding. Does this issue still exist?

J: We have started flying again. A few donors have come forward to say that they will continue funding and also, at the donors’ request, we have introduced a cost component for the helicopters, so the NGOs are paying 20 per cent of the cost of the service. It’s a bit hard to say how this will affect certain organisations and their budgets for their operations because it is still very expensive to fly.

D: That’s where Remote Access Operation comes into play because that’s when the porters and the yaks can carry cargo between 30 to 60 kg. It is a lot slower but we can get to most of the locations. There are still places where only helicopters can gain access. We still continue to monitor those areas and advise donors because if there are any trails being repaired by heavy engineering, we would prefer that the areas accessible only by helicopters are given top priority so we can ease the financial burden from those trying to help.

Since the earthquake, have you noticed anything peculiar about the way people function on a day-to-day basis?

D: We weren’t there during the earthquake so we can’t really compare, but one thing I’ve noticed is that we most often forget that government officials and public servants are also affected by the earthquake. There’s been a lot of demanding from the Prime Minister and the ministers and the local representatives to do different things and sometimes we forget that they are a part of the suffering too and not just the beneficiaries in the remote areas. Some of them lost their homes, family members and yet they’re still doing their job for the country. So we always have to keep that in mind as those of us who come in afterwards, that our beneficiaries are not always just the people that are hungry and have lost their homes and fields but also the actual people that we’re working with.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu.

Zinc roofing materials for homes and shelters awaits distribution at the WFP base in Kathmandu. With winter coming, the need for adequate shelter is vital as many people still have no permanent housing. Photo: Ritu Panchal


“Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it, that we deliver as much as we possibly can.”

What are the challenges that lie ahead?

D: Winter is coming… and nothing that we do is going to change that. We need to ensure that we are planning for it and that we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that we deliver as much as we possibly can. By doing so we will be prepared when the snow falls, especially in the remote areas. People need to be able to access food, stores and shelter that we were able to preposition for them so that the winter isn’t going to be as hard as it could be. That’s what we’re most concerned about today and we are working very hard to ensure that we beat the snow.

There have been reports of another quake that is going to hit Nepal. What are the steps that the organisation is taking to be ready to face it?

J: In a place like Nepal which faces danger of a recurring threat, maintaining a structure like the HSA is something that we will continue doing and that will go into next year. We will also be working very closely with the government to assist them. We will be focusing on building the government’s capacity on emergency response, having equipment, staff that is trained and having processes and procedures in place so that we’re better prepared to respond to emergencies.

What future do you see for Nepal’s recovery?

D: One of the bigger issues in Nepal is infrastructure because logistics uses infrastructure like roads, bridges, trails in order to solve problems. Given the effect of the monsoon post the earthquakes, infrastructure is most damaged and as an engineer I’m going to say that it’s going to take a long time to repair everything. People are repairing the road to China, the road to Sindupalchok and once the rain stops they’re planning to do some major work on the tourist trails so there’s going to be enough work for quite a long time. At the end of the day we need to keep in mind that this is an earthquake zone so you repair something and you might have to come back and do it again. It’s all about the infrastructure.

J: Through the logistic cluster we also have a specific working group looking at access and infrastructure to map out the key bottlenecks and identify if anybody has any projects to open those roads and trails.

D: We had planned to work on a trail in Gorkha only to find out that the monks in the monasteries had already done it. Yesterday, talking to another group we found out that the locals have fixed a major trail that goes through the district we had planned to fix. There is an abundance of wealth of information as well as people willing to do things for themselves and their resilience is incredible. I see the resilience of the people that live in the remote areas and they are an incredible group of people. They know what their lifelines are so they get out there and they’re helping themselves every day. It’s really heart-warming to watch them rebuild their country.

‘The only way Nepal can pay these debts is to take out new loans’

In the wake of the earthquake, Nepal has been promised $4 billion in aid by the international community. Much of this money is yet to materialise, primarily because the political process in the country was paralysed by ongoing debates over the new constitution. With the constitution now enacted, it is expected that aid money will finally reach Nepal, and be put to use in the reconstruction of infrastructure.

But there is a catch.

Nepal, which is the 22nd poorest country in the world in terms of  average national income, has a debt that currently stands at $3.5 billion. And despite the disaster, this has not been written off by international creditors.

Not just that. The International Monetary Fund, one of Nepal’s lenders, expect the nation to pay back the debt in full, as the disaster was not severe enough to ‘qualify’ for debt relief. This, says Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, is not only counterproductive but simply “outrageous”. In this interview with Patrick Ward, the policy officer of the London-based JDC, which specialises in campaigns for cancelling unjust debts in the developing world, speaks about the debt trap that Nepal is in.

How big a burden is international debt on Nepal?

Nepal this year will be spending $210 million on debt repayments, and obviously on top of all the damage caused by the earthquake that’s money that it can’t afford. The other danger is that lots of the international assistance that comes is going to be in the form of loans from people like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, so that further adds to the debt. It means that the cost of the crisis continues for many years to come.

Of the financial assistance to Nepal over the five years from 2009 to 2013, Nepal received $1.7 billion, 33 per cent, in loans, and $3.5 billion, 66 per cent, in grants. Of the $4.4 billion pledged since the earthquake, at the donor conference, half is apparently grants, half loans.

Who is the money owed to?

Of Nepal’s $3.5 billion external debt, $1.5 billion is owed to the World Bank and $1.4 billion to the Asian Development Bank, institutions owned by governments around the world. If the debt was cancelled they say they would have to find the money from somewhere else. But they actually make a profit on various forms of lending elsewhere, so they would be able to cover the costs through that. They have lots of pockets of free money lying around.

“It’s outrageous how the international community keep requiring these payments to be made, then are able to get lots of positive publicity for themselves as they talk about how much money they’re going to give.”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any let-up in repayments. Another institution, the International Monetary Fund, is owed less by Nepal, but it’s still owed something. They, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, created a scheme to cancel debts following a catastrophe. They’ve actually said in this instance that Nepal’s earthquakes were not catastrophic enough for Nepal to qualify for debt relief. So they expect Nepal to pay back their debts in full, which we think is absolutely outrageous. It’s outrageous how the international community keep requiring these payments to be made, then are able to get lots of positive publicity for themselves as they talk about how much money they’re going to give. But it isn’t really mentioned that those are loans as well.

What sort of strings are attached to the loans given out by these bodies?

One of the historical reasons why they don’t like to cancel debt is that it gives them control over what governments do. It means external control over government budgets. The only way Nepal can pay these debts is to take out new loans, and with new loans, governments have to implement policies that the IMF and World Bank tell them to implement. Historically it’s been things like requiring publicly owned enterprises to be privatised, opening up to international trade, deregulating the economy, removing things like labour laws and reducing the power of trade unions. If then a country defaults, it becomes an international pariah. People stop giving money.

Greece is a case for this. It has seen massive public sector cuts over the past five years, the economy has shrunk by 25 per cent. Jamaica is another country in debt crisis. The IMF, which is seen as a gatekeeper, demanded a 7.5 per cent primary surplus, so lots of austerity. That’s been going on for the past 20 years. The number of children in primary schools in Jamaica has dropped from 100 per cent to 75 per cent in that time.

What can people do to change this?

We’ve supported a call by 30 organisations across Asia, and around 200 organisations internationally, calling for Nepal’s debt to be cancelled following the earthquake and for any international assistance to be given as grants, not loans. In the UK, more than 5,000 people have written to the UK’s representatives at the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, calling on them to cancel the debt.

‘We want to continue with relief in Nepal, we want to do a lot, but the process needs to be made easier’

The aftershocks are dying out now in Nepal and, for most people, the initial danger is over. But there are still thousands living in temporary shelters, struggling for basic necessities. With the monsoon retreating, and in the context of a new political appetite for reconstruction, there is hope that now the country can move forward to a more durable future.

One person who has been involved in relief work in Nepal from the very beginning is Ramon Magsaysay winner Anshu Gupta. Gupta, who won the prestigious award for his exemplary social work in July 2015, is the founder of Goonj, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to provide clothing and other essentials to the poorer sections of Indian society. In April, Gupta had led Goonj’s relief efforts in Nepal in what was the group’s first foray into international aid work. In this interview with Ankita Mishra, Gupta speaks about his plans for Nepal, bureaucratic hurdles, and the extent of infrastructure reconstruction that is needed.

On raising aid for relief efforts in Nepal:

Raising aid and relief materials was not a challenge, as people in India have faith in Goonj and the work we do. And in times of disasters, there is no dearth of people willing to help. Donations, both monetary and material, came in from all parts of the country, and we certainly appreciated the exceptional quality of some of the materials that were sent in.

On coordinating aid efforts in Nepal:

Nepal has quite a few Ashoka fellows who are doing a good job. Some of them knew us, knew me personally, and the organisation, from earlier. We worked with all the possible Ashoka fellows, in Sindhupalchok, Gorkha, Barpak, Dading and many other areas, and we also worked with many other voluntary aid organisations. Instead of doing it directly, we conducted aid work only through local organisations that were registered before the disaster, as per the rules formulated by the local government. While we did go there, to supervise and deliver aid, we coordinated efforts on the ground with the local organisations.

On reaching affected areas in remote parts of Nepal:

We were able to travel extensively with the help of local communities, although it was particularly risky in some areas. Already tough terrain was made even more difficult by frequent landslides, with many villages completely cut off. Aid was transported to these places through choppers hired by other organisations, and we provided the material to be transported. We told the local organisations not to spend money on material aid since that was something we could take care of effectively, and instead asked them to spend it on hiring choppers so that things could be reached to remote places where aid was needed the most. This system worked well, and served to increase our reach. We deployed 45 fully loaded trucks of absolutely need-based material. Hardly anything has gone there which is of no use to the people or the culture there, because our work revolves around material, so we do understand those cultural and geographical sensitivities. We are a core believer of the principle that you should not give something that people don’t need.

On volunteerism in Nepal:

We worked with a lot of new sets of volunteers. I think that is really, really beautiful about Nepal. The kind of volunteerism that we saw was unprecedented, and it remained active for very long. The youth were really dedicated and passionate, reaching out to the extremely needy areas, and devoted their full time without worrying about their jobs or their personal safety. This was immensely encouraging to see. We made sure to support these volunteer groups, which are a bit more unstructured than the other more established organisations. But we knew that they were very passionate about helping fellow Nepalis and could reach out to the remote and affected parts of Nepal.

A view of Sankhu, one of the villages that suffered severe destruction in the Nepal earthquake. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

A view of Sankhu, a village in the Kathmandu valley, that suffered severe destruction. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

On bureaucratic hurdles:

The Nepali government needs to be more open to support… there’s lots of bureaucratic hiccups and long series of permissions required. Agencies like ours with lots of resources, we can generate more, and people are willing to provide support, but government processes proved to be major hurdles at times. Initially, our trucks that contained relief materials were stopped at the border and sent to the Nepal Transport Corporation, and accessing our own aid became a huge challenge. Trucks bound for specific areas, and aid designated for particular local organisations, had no surety of reaching the specified destinations unless we actively tracked it. We subsequently posted two of our people on the border to manage the chaos surrounding the clearance of trucks, which ideally should have been streamlined by the local systems in place.

Another challenge was getting aid to areas through the suggested system of Community Building Organisations (CBOs) in Nepal’s towns and villages. The CBOs were already inundated with various jobs and responsibilities in light of the disaster. Therefore, it was becoming increasingly impossible for them to handle everything.

The most befuddling aspect of the entire ordeal was the fact that we were asked to pay custom duties and tax for the aid we were bringing into Nepal. It is sad if people spend so much of money buying something, putting in so much effort, working day and night, and distributing aid free of cost, but end up paying such huge customs duties at the border, even for aid. How many people will end up paying 20-25% duty and VAT when with the same money you can do so much more?

We want to continue participating in relief efforts in Nepal, we want to do a lot, but the process needs to be made easier. Presently, the process is such that you have to first set up an MoU with a local Nepali aid organisation, then get the approval for aid work in certain areas from the local Public Works Committees and welfare councils in Nepal. Once this approval comes through, you have to apply to the Central Board of Direct Taxation (CBDT) in India. CBDT will subsequently send the application to the Indian Embassy in Nepal. The Indian Embassy, on approving the application, will send it to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in India. The MEA will then forward the approval to the CBDT, and the CBDT will finally convey the same to you. The process is so long-drawn and complicated that even if the application comes through successfully, it would have possibly taken three months or longer. In emergency situations where immediate action needs to be taken, this hinders efforts to reach timely help to affected areas. And if any one agency, any one office in Nepal or in India has some kind of objection over a single, even miniscule point, the entire thing will fall apart.

When people and countries are willing to send aid, which is very much required right now because it is a large-scale disaster which needs a lot of support to mitigate, the processes involved should be less complicated. It is true, however, that the government officials were quite cooperative in many areas, and certainly all aid work would not be possible without official support. However, the bottlenecks within bureaucratic and government processes need to be removed in order to increase the efficiency of the aid delivery process. And this problem is not only endemic to Nepal, it happens everywhere. “You come and we’ll approve”, simple as this approach is, does not happen anywhere in the world, even during times of disasters.

On the situation in Nepal, what needs to be done:

The situation is extremely bad, with many villages having experienced complete and utter devastation. There is very little left in so many areas. Rampant migration and a whole lot of other problems still exist in Nepal. In any case, whether it is India or Nepal, we are not very rich countries; we have rich parts of the country, and then we have large parts that are poor. We need to rebuild houses, schools. Not just infrastructure, we need to rebuild an entire schooling system. Even a single pencil is needed… the disaster is of that level. It has brought everything to zero. Infrastructure rebuilding is certainly needed because until and unless those things are restored, Nepal will take much longer to come back on its feet. However, infrastructure rebuilding is a large-scale operation; the Nepali government, with the help of much bigger agencies, needs to do it.

On resilient Nepalis:

In countries like ours [India and Nepal], we have very resilient people; we learn how to survive. People like us, if we had to stand in the rain for two days, I don’t know whether we’d survive or not, but thousands of people in both countries know how to survive. If you live in a tin shed located on shaky land, you still go to school, you still go to work, you still do whatever you need to in order to survive. The positive thing about the whole operation was that the people of Nepal are very resilient, and their determination to persevere despite all odds was inspiring. It is in times of disasters that the true strength and character of a people are revealed, and Nepal was no exception.

On lessons on complacency:

India is also a very disaster prone country where disasters like the one in Nepal can, and have occurred. One thing that we need to be really mindful of as a nation is that nothing happens in this country in the name of urgency. We tend to wait for things to happen before we act. The disaster in Nepal was made much more worse than otherwise due to the faulty and inadequate structures that were built to house people. We must understand the importance of being cautious and acting fast, of being proactive rather than reactive.

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‘All our hazards have become disasters because of mismanagement’

Crisis situations invariably bring up questions about how they are communicated to the world, and often what is highlighted is the lack of preparedness in this area. Scholars highlight several challenges that are common to crises: among them, issues of accuracy from amidst the ‘fog’ of a calamitous event, an overemphasis on death and destruction to create more dramatic narratives, and at times even deliberate misinformation.

In the wake of the April 25 earthquake in Nepal, the way information was shared, particularly in the media, has come under criticism. For one, lack of accurate communication, in a post-earthquake situation such as that exists in the Himalayan country, could mean that relief is unevenly distributed. A challenge specific to Nepal was that community radio stations, on which a significant proportion of the population rely on for news, were hit badly, with 61 stations seeing their premises damaged.

It is not surprising then that disaster management and crisis communication have acquired a new importance in Nepal in the last four months, particularly in light of the country’s continued vulnerability to earthquake. In this interview, Patrick Ward speaks to Dr Sudhamshu Dahal, Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at the Kathmandu University, who is working to ensure that Nepal is better prepared in terms of strategic communications. Dr Dahal now strives to stimulate governmental and academic discussions in Nepal so as to create a model for crisis communication. Edited excerpts from a conversation in which he speaks of the need for a national crisis communication strategy, the necessity of crisis journalism training for the media, and how the aftermath of the earthquake is being normalised:

What is the current state of developing a model for crisis communications in Nepal? How are the ideas being developed after the earthquake?

Largely crisis communication comes under the corporate branch of communication studies, as part of PR and the field of advertising. They will be the experts, but they look at crisis communication for companies, within the corporate. I am trying to take crisis communications out of the corporate sector and to relate it to natural and man-made crises. Those ideas of having a uniform platform for information sharing might work well in time of natural disasters like earthquakes.

Could you elaborate on your thoughts on what is needed?

I was involved in a study that assessed the status of media and journalists in eight of the worst-affected districts in Nepal, and one of the compelling recommendations that came out of it was that journalists should be given training in how to report during such crises. The media here had some training during the Maoist movement—on how to to do conflict reporting, on peace journalism, things like that. But they don’t know how to report on disasters, do crisis reporting. These journalists said that during the time of the insurgency you can have some level of expectation: Maoists are coming from this side, government forces are coming from that side, and here could be my safe line, where I can put myself safely and do my reporting. But with earthquakes you cannot predict like that. This unpredictability can put you in danger.

“These problems are exacerbated because of parachute journalists. The foreign media are coming and reporting and you feel pressure to do something on par, if not more, than the foreign journalists.”

The other point, which is quite pressing, was what to report. You see everywhere everything falling, and you see the human casualties, you see the property damage and sometimes you see mass casualties. Your relatives may have died. What is the news at that time? There is also pressure from the family and the demands from your news organisation. The news organisation asks you to report more, do more, and your family will be very concerned that you want to go out. You are also concerned for your family because your home has been destroyed and you have nowhere to stay. You might be staying in a temporary shelter. How do you move around and report with all that?

These problems are exacerbated because of parachute journalists. The foreign media are coming and reporting and you feel pressure to do something on par, if not more, than the foreign journalists. The final pressure boils down to the journalists in the field, local stringers, maybe local reporters. So how do you do journalism within all this? That’s one area where they would like to have some kind of training.

How are the ideas on crisis communication being received?

There is a larger understanding now that we need to have a coordinated effort. The only fear would be how to balance information control and the freedom of expression that you need to exercise as a journalist. Media organisations are now thinking of making a kind of backpack for the journalists, with a torch, a radio, etc. What I am telling these people is, what you are doing is a novel thing, it’s a good thing—but you also need to give some training. More than the equipment, journalists want some discussions. Most journalists are asking for indigenous experts to tell them how to do crisis journalism. They are not expecting foreign journalists to come and give training, because the foreigner may not understand the situation here. What has happened elsewhere cannot be replicated here. They already had a good exposure during the Maoist insurgency, a lot of training happened. All those trainings did not help when the earthquake struck. Maybe this is the time we developed our own training and have our own indigenous knowledge in place.

Worked continue to rebuild temples in Patan. Much of the world's media focused on the damaged and destroyed cultural heritage sites after the earthquake, giving a sense of blanket devastation across Nepal.

Reconstruction continues in Kathmandu’s Patan area. There was much focus on damaged and destroyed cultural heritage sites, giving a sense of blanket devastation across Nepal. Photo: Patrick Ward

How effective was the Nepali media’s response to the earthquake?

Nepal had just come out of a 10-year armed conflict, and journalists came out of that knowing political crisis reporting. But the need was different here, because as the popular saying goes, ‘Earthquakes don’t kill, but bad infrastructures do’. This is exactly what happened to the media. For most of the radio stations, they had to put off their transmissions because they were in very bad buildings. For many media in Kathmandu, as well as in the severely affected districts, equipment were damaged. And there had been big personal losses as well—when you have a personal loss, that will also affect your work.

Psychologically these journalists, the camera crews were prepared to deal with all sorts of emergencies, but the physical infrastructure was very weak. One good example was Radio Nepal. It’s a government-run radio service, a national broadcaster which reaches almost all the places in Nepal, and they were doing a fantastic job of reporting during the earthquake. They even reported at the time when it was still shaking, because they had very good infrastructure. Radio Nepal’s buildings and other communication infrastructures are largely supported by the government of Japan, who constructed very good, earthquake-resistant studios for them.

But the private media were kind of crippled. The big media houses, who had their own buildings, crumbled. For example, the Kantipur Group, which runs newspapers, television, radio—their building was destroyed. They shifted to a temporary place. Their offices have been demolished, and now they are constructing a new one. That was the status of the so-called most popular private media. The most popular private media would also mean the most rich media in Nepal—so you can imagine the status of the small radio stations which might have rented a few rooms in a flat. So most of them stopped. They were also unsure about the information that they were supposed to disseminate, because they didn’t have the resources on their own to report the reality from the ground.

Many people seemed to be following social media for the latest information, often rumours. Has this caused problems?

Rumours were the biggest worry. The information you get at the time of crisis could be termed as life-saving, because based on that information you decide which could be life-affecting. So rumours did play a major role in creating panic among the people, because the very day the earthquake first came on 25 April, for almost 72 hours we were feeling small and big jolts. So people who were gathered at one place dared not move out. The rumours got multiplied through the internet because access to it was pretty good. I saw the very first picture of the massive destruction when the Dharahara tower collapsed in Sundhara—I saw that first picture within the first two hours of the impact. The rumours also went that fast among the people.

The main rumour was that the next big one is coming, be prepared. There were also international rumours; we got this information from this scientist in the US or UK or elsewhere in Europe and they are saying, yes, brace yourself for the big one. Some of this information was true, but the way they were interpreted, they became rumours and people got panicked. In fact, a few people were using a hand mic and announcing that the next one is coming in two hours, so get yourself prepared, come out from the house. Later on we found out they were burglars who wanted to evacuate people, and they were finally arrested by the police. The worrisome part is we don’t have a central mechanism to counter these rumours. The government mechanism still does not put emphasis on using communication to do so.

What role has the international media played in the aftermath of the earthquake? Many have criticised the behaviour of the Indian media, especially.

There’s been a problem with the Indian media, which I’ll come to later, but there’s also been a problem with the international media because at the time of crisis, it does parachute journalism. You just parachute a journalist to a site. Many of them may have come for the first time to Nepal. They might have quickly googled Nepal and seen images on the internet. They were already reporting destruction of cultural heritage and densely populated areas, so the images they were sending back home for broadcast over international media gave the impression that everything’s been destroyed in Nepal. It was a disaster, almost 10,000 people died. But if you see the geographical area of the earthquake, the effect is not spread. It is concentrated in one area, and obviously many people have died and lots of buildings have been damaged. But it was not that severe as a polio outbreak or SARS. Each individual was affected, but not everyone was affected in the same way.

So far as the Indian media are concerned, they grew out of political reporting. So they only know about political reporting. If you look into the Indian media, you will see breaking news never stops. They used that same training here. We expected them to empathise more than the rest who came to report. Rather than that, they were digging sensational news out in this disaster. That was the biggest problem, and it shows that they are not trained at all in crisis reporting.

“We might not have expected the same if it was CNN or BBC or any other international media, but it was Indian media. So the expectation was very, very high.”

The Indian media was embedded within the Indian army rescue teams. Embedding journalists doesn’t work in disaster reporting. The Indian army was the first foreign help that arrived in Nepal. They arrived within six hours of the earthquake, and they were also embedding the Indian media. So some of the media personnel were the very first to reach affected sites. We might not have expected the same if it was CNN or BBC or any other international media, but it was Indian media. So people felt that rather than coming and asking lots of questions, they should have brought some medicine or relief supplies. When you analyse the Indian reporting on Nepal, you have to look at it from the social, cultural, and political relations between these two countries. So the expectation was very, very high. But the way they reported was very bad and they were not following any of the ethical guidelines. Very interestingly, they were condemned more by their own media critics at home than in Nepal.

Buildings are stabilised with supports following the Nepal Earthquake along this street in Kathmandu.

Weakened buildings have been temporarily stabilised and businesses now continue below. Despite concern about potential damage from aftershocks, there is also a sense of normalisation. Photo: Pushkala Aripaka

It’s a near daily occurrence to feel aftershocks from the earthquake, even four months later. Are they becoming normalised?

This is where we need to talk about culturally sensitive communication. Many times, when you have global indicators of safety and wellbeing, if you take those indicators and try to fit them into another part of the world, it may not work. We are getting so many aftershocks that either you have to run out all the time or you have to live with it. We have no other options.

The Seismological Centre of the Government of Nepal released data to commemorate three months of 25 April. During the first month following the earthquake, we had 1,300 aftershocks bigger than 2 magnitude each day. That came down to 100 by three months. They only report earthquakes of magnitude 4-plus to the people. Some of the aftershocks which were less than 4 were badly felt in Kathmandu itself. One, magnitude 3.3 which had an epicentre in Kathmandu, jolted us very bad. We thought it was big, big, big, and then when they released the data it was 3.3, not even 4. So it was against their policy to announce that result.

Even in the well-informed scientific authority of the government, they are finding it difficult to know how to report. They say we will put a 4 magnitude as a bar, below that we won’t report because it won’t give people any shock. But we felt the aftershocks that are less than that, so how do you really go about that?

“This earthquake could be a reference point for having a better disaster management policy, and communication could be a central element in all our disaster planning.”

It’s not been normalised in the sense that we have forgotten it or we are getting absentminded in preparing ourselves for the time of real danger. But maybe we are trying to learn to differentiate between the hazard and the disaster. We don’t have the terminology for hazard in Nepali. All our hazards have become disasters because of mismanagement. This is what happened in Haiti as well, it is what happened in India. But this didn’t happen in Japan when a month back there was an earthquake of nearly 8 magnitude. They were so prepared that the videos coming from YouTube showed that people were just standing still when they had been walking, and they were waiting some time for it to pass, and then they just carried on with their routine work. If that happens here, we would not do that. Life will have its own forwards and backwards and stills and leapfrogging, so maybe we are just thinking, if we worry too much, we cannot live. This possibility has been talked about for many years. But we never realised what it could do until it happened. Now that the disaster has happened, we actually realise we are in a high seismic zone, and that we have to be alert, and maybe try to find some kind of resilience.

So do you think this latest earthquake will lead to better preparation for the future?

Each individual in Nepal now want to make earthquake resistance a priority. I’ve seen some of my neighbours retrofitting their houses so that their houses stay safe. But this is a resource-constrained country. The government should have a policy where we can feel comfortable and confident and adapt our buildings for earthquake and other natural hazards. So this earthquake could be a reference point where we think of having a better disaster management policy, and communication could be a central element in all our disaster planning.

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