Public anger growing in Kathmandu, there's a risk it will boil over

  • Thomas Bell
  • Updated: May 05, 2015 01:08 IST

When my wife was building our house a few years ago she used a lot of steel and concrete in the foundations, and the neighbours told her parents, 'Your daughter is pouring money into the ground'. Yet, when it was finished, they said, 'When the earthquake comes, leave your door open'.

(HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

The Nepal earthquake must be one of the most anticipated natural disasters of all time. For years, in the city at least, many people have thought about it and spoken about it every day. Some people, not nearly old enough to remember the last one in 1934, had earthquake dreams before it even happened.

But besides building a good house, like most people, we had made almost no preparations. In our neighbourhood of congested alleys it hardly seemed worth it. If we made it, we made it. There was no kit of survival supplies, and no sign of the recommended plan for how we would find each other in the chaos. On the day it happened, there wasn't even any water in our tank because it needed cleaning.

(HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

Earthquake preparedness has been an industry in Kathmandu in recent years, although most people participated in it even less than we did. This was at the instigation of the international donors, who were gradually retrofitting the Kathmandu Valley's schools and hospitals with structural reinforcements. There were 'awareness raising' campaigns, although everyone was already aware of course. And there were strategies and supplies put in place in advance, and government capacity building, and administrative structures created to effectively respond to the disaster.

The models showed that at least 100,000 people were liable to be crushed to death in Kathmandu. But as I recall - and one day I'll have time to go back and study these things - the risk level in the countryside was seen as rather lower because there were far fewer buildings there, and they were smaller.

True enough, after it happened last Saturday, this was the script that played out for a while. I read on the internet that Kathmandu had been "flattened". It was "the city that turned to dust". This remained the case even for a day or so after the first international TV news crews arrived.

We were able to establish within a few hours that no members of our family - nor our friends - were killed, although two of my in-laws suffered broken legs. Indeed, it was quickly obvious that, in fact, very few houses in the city had fallen down. They were stronger than we all supposed. Most of them looked as unscathed as ours did. As far as I yet know, the nearest death came to me was a friend's servant's son, who was killed by falling debris while he was staying with his aunt.

This is the very important point about the Nepal earthquake, that it spared the rich and tortured the poor. It's likely that the recovery, such as it is, will be just as unfair and partial.

(HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

The parts of the Kathmandu Valley which have been worst hit are mainly relatively traditional settlements beyond the capital itself, especially Bhaktapur 15km away to the east, the old town of Sankhu, which once prospered from its position on the former trade route to Tibet, and villages such as Harisiddhi, Kokana and Bungamati, which are built around goddess temples beyond the ring road to the south. Well over a thousand people have died in and around the capital, mostly in poor housing. This is out of an estimated population in the Valley of around 2.5 million.

The situation in the countryside is obviously far worse, although, almost a week since the disaster, it remains largely unknown. It appears that in several districts - an area where millions of people live - most villages have been razed. A friend circulated his eye-witness account of villages in Rasuwa, north of Kathmandu, obliterated by avalanches, and huddled survivors menaced by landslides in the dark. Seismologists have estimated that the death toll could reach 50, 000.

Yet, it's typical of Kathmandu that even as the focus is pried away from this place and directed towards the rural majority, most of the aid still seems to be stuck in the city. In addition to the many large international agencies already present, two hundred INGOs (International NGOs) have now descended on Nepal, most of them with no knowledge or experience of the country. And they are all growing increasingly frustrated in Kathmandu - that their tents are still stuck in the airport, that there aren't enough trucks, that they can't get the bureaucratic permissions they need, that no one in authority seems to have the capacity or the motivation to start directing help to where it is needed.

(HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

This is not to say that the operation which is being attempted could be done easily. It is obviously very difficult. Yet this disaster was planned for, and it is clear that the response is not off to a particularly good start.

Few observers, including me, want to be overly critical in the circumstances. The government should receive support, but it must also give support. There are already reports of public anger directed at the authorities in provincial towns. And in Kathmandu (where people who have lost everything also say they have received nothing from the government) there seems to be a risk that frustration could boil over.

The common assumption (and this says more about past performance than it does about the paralysis of these few days) is that the authorities are "eating" all the money that the foreigners are sending. In truth, they haven't had the time.

Watch: Nepalis use music to comfort fellow survivors, call out for help

Like most people in Kathmandu, I've spent most of the time since the earthquake looking after my family. But unlike almost anyone else, we moved into a hotel, where the international news channel my wife works for was setting up its operations.

Among the guests, who were at first sleeping on abundant eiderdowns on the lobby floor, there were at first dozens of grossly disfigured delegates to an international tattoo convention. "They look like devils," said a stranded Indian businessman whom I met in the bar. "God gave us our bodies. Don't they have families?"

(HT Photo / Sonu Mehta)

As commercial flights became available the tattooists were replaced with more ordinary looking, but actually more ghoulish guests, the harbingers of death, international news correspondents. The lobby and the garden and the bar filled with cases of equipment and tripods and satellite BGANs (Broadband Global Area Network) and laptops and cables. I know this gang, because at times I've also belonged to it. I hadn't seen some of them for years.

One of the things that the media inevitably focussed on, while they got their bearings, was the destruction of several historic and celebrated temples in the Valley's durbar squares. These buildings, with tiered pagoda-like roofs, generally dating from around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had collapsed into heaps of dust and bricks and shattered timber. It was an awful and also a dramatic sight. It was actually one of the few things there was to see.

Because I've written a book which is more or less a history of Kathmandu, people wanted to interview me about these temples. "How does it feel," one woman asked me, notebook poised, "to see the durbar squares destroyed?" And I wasn't sure what to say, because I was moved by this loss, but I also felt extremely relieved that Kathmandu had not fallen down.

(HT Photo/ Raj K Raj)

While we were in the square a body was removed from the rubble. I was back the next day, to give another interview, and again I saw a body driven away.

A little while later the prime minister and the army chief arrived. It was Wednesday, and the prime minister was making his first public appearances since the disaster. "What has this old fool come to do?" asked an onlooker standing near me. The volunteers who were clearing the debris of the temples hooted and jeered.

People say, and I don't know if this is true, that when the prime minister gave his speech earlier on Wednesday he missed one page out and read another page twice. It is also widely believed that the government has been imposing customs duties on relief supplies - this appears not to be true.

What is significant is the very low estimation that people have of their leaders. For the most part, when one looks at their actions, it seems justified. The rural areas into which medical relief will hopefully soon be flowing have practically no medical services at the best of times. This is due to government corruption and indifference, and it is despite long running and substantial international aid. International help is desperately needed now, yet there is a great danger that if it is poorly managed - as it often has been before in Nepal - the benefits will be disappointing, and some consequences counter-productive.

When I got in the car, which the TV network had provided to drive me back to the hotel, the driver delivered a bitter tirade against the whole political class, whom he believed was stealing the aid intended for survivors. This man, who had lost his home but not his family in the disaster, proposed a specific and radical manner of disposing with all politicians. "Only then," he said, "will things be OK."

Thomas Bell is the author of Kathmandu. He lives in the city with his family. Write in to us at

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