An earthquake maybe a natural phenomenon but last week’s tremor that pulverised large swathes of Nepal also exposed a lingering lack of governance in an impoverished country still struggling to emerge from years of war and write a constitution.
In a way, shoddy implementation of buildings rules first exacerbated the loss of lives and then a lack of effective administration hobbled quick rescue and distribution of relief, political analysts say.
Most of the more than 6,000 deaths occurred in Kathmandu and its suburbs, which are full of small, poorly constructed brick apartment buildings - many of them erected by greasing the palms of civic and police officials. Little was done to strengthen older parts of the city which too collapsed.
“Why did those buildings get built? Because of government apathy towards unplanned and illegal constructions,” says Krishna Khanal, political analyst and Nepal’s leading constitutional expert.
“There is complete lack of accountability. This disaster was compounded by the absence of political leadership and will as well as ineffective urban planning and disaster management.”
Nepal, despite its well-known seismic vulnerability, has seen an explosion in corruption-fuelled, haphazard urbanisation over the past few years, especially in and around capital Kathmandu, once the ancient bed of a lake. The civil war between 1996 and 2006 did not help as internal displacement from villages saw an exodus to Kathmandu.
In the hours and days after the earthquake, government fumbled with its response while hundreds of tonnes of global aid sat at the airport and government storehouses waiting to be distributed. Multiple media reports attributed the ham-handedness to ineffective communication between not only officials and aid agencies but also between government departments. In districts, there is a breakdown of channels between government and villages.
“All this paint a picture of government ineptness. In Nepal, political parties have remained focused on staying in power and the constitutional crisis,” says political analyst Yuvraj Gautam.
In 2006, Nepal emerged from a decade-long civil war between Maoists and the long-ruling monarchy only to enter a period of squabble-ridden politics that has hindered the writing of a new constitution as agreed between the rebels and the government. The average term of a government has been a year.
To be sure, the present government of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has presided over a more stable country after the failure of four successive ruling coalitions, but he has been unable to forge consensus on a new constitution.
The parties remain sharply divided largely over the question of the nature of the Nepali state as well as the form of government.
The standoff is diverting political energies from governance and is partly responsible for undermining issues such as urban management, says Gautam.
“There are several things sapping political energies,” he says. “So to that extent the governance vacuum can be blamed for worsening this disaster.”
Full coverage: Nepal Earthquake