On Tuesday, the Society of Ex-Budhanilkantha Students (SEBS) dropped off 2,000 tarpaulin sheets and 60 tonnes of rice at the military barracks in Melamchi, Sindhupalchok. The following day, the relief material would be distributed to earthquake victims in the district’s constituency number 3—the worst-affected area in the worst-affected district. But the consignment was initially intended for Sindhupalchok constituency number 1, and the SEBS team had already visited Bahrabise earlier to figure out the mechanism for the distribution of aid. At the last minute, however, a Nepali Congress (NC) leader from the area, an elected Constituent Assembly (CA) member, Mohan Basnet, held back the distribution.
In the presence of the SEBS team, the all-party mechanism in constituency number 1 had already decided to distribute the aid equally among the seven Village Development Committees (VDCs) in the area, but Basnet was furious that he had not been consulted. He started demanding that his constituency should get all the tarpaulins and the sacks of rice. When the SEBS team refused to do that, he resorted to threats, saying outright that he would block the distribution in the area and would go even further and make sure that the team never crossed the border into Sindhupalchok.
In these times of crisis, one would think that the politicians, especially elected leaders, would refrain from petty politicking and band together to help the victims. That they would immediately realise that this is not the time for politics, and even if they think it is, that they would understand working together would actually be beneficial to their political career in the long run. But cases in Sindhupalchok show that the politicians are not able to rise above their political leanings. Neither are they able to see that catering to their vote bank only hampers the much-needed relief work.
The 7.9 magnitude earthquake was merciless and Sindhupalchok bore most of its brunt. Almost half of the nation’s more than 7,800 deaths occurred in Sindhupalchok alone. And 95 percent of over 66,000 houses in the district have been completely or partially destroyed. Those who survived are clamouring for shelter and food and a little bit of decency from their leaders. But it took the politicians in Sindhupalchok’s constituency number 3 more than a week to form an all-party group that would be in charge of aid distribution. And even though they profess to work together and be fair in distribution, one can overhear biases in their discussions.
While the local leaders were waiting for the consignment from SEBS to arrive on Tuesday, they discussed how the relief material donated by another organisation the other day had been siphoned off to Sikharpur VDC alone. The man behind this move, a local NC cadre, Ganesh Dahal, tried to justify his act by saying that the package contained not more than a few tarpaulin sheets and a few kilos of worthless beaten rice. He tried to make it seem as if no one in his village was happy with the relief package and that by sneaking the relief material into his area of influence, he had saved other politicians from having to face disgruntled villagers on their own.
What Dahal did, however, was what every politician wanted to do and would do if given the chance—take credit for looking after their party’s vote bank in these tough times. Earthquake victims do not want to see their leaders coming over to survey the wreckage empty-handed. Reportedly, a CPN-UML leader, also a former CA member, Dolma Tamang, had to flee her village when she went there to survey the damage without any aid in hand. When Rashtriya Prajatantra Party chairman Pashupati Shumsher Rana arrived on Tuesday to take stock of the situation, he had to constantly assure his ‘karyakartas’ that he would soon send over 2,000 tarpaulin sheets, followed by the delivery of 10,000 more. Rana, who had never lost the seat in his constituency until the 2008 elections, has his career at stake here.
So does the CPN-UML politician and elected member of the current CA, Sher Bahadur Tamang. When Sher Bahadur arrived late in the evening on Tuesday—ten days after the Great Quake—he openly admitted that he was there to show his face because his voters were miffed at him for doing nothing. Later, a CPN-UML local politician pulled aside the leader of the SEBS team, Rabindra Maharjan, who was assigned to deliver the goods, and asked him to tell the people that the consignment was possible only because of Sher Bahadur. Whether the elected politician was aware of his fellow party member’s scheming words or not, it was another proof that the politicians were jostling for undue credit, even as the earth beneath shook from aftershocks.
Politicking continues at the VDC level as well. When a group of local politicians from Dubachaur VDC, along with its VDC secretary, arrived on Wednesday to load a truck with tarps and sacks of rice donated by SEBS, a CPN-UML local leader could be heard telling another that they would distribute the aid only to a select few wards. “Why distribute the aid to wards 6 and 7?” said Dipendra Shrestha. “We will take all the relief material to ward numbers 2 and 3.”
Unfortunately, there is no way around the politicians for relief-material distribution. Relief workers cannot penetrate into the villages and distribute the aid themselves. They do not know the villages well and do not have access to regularly updated lists of victims and relief distribution. Major Prem Hamal, who is in the district, recounted how a truck full of aid had to return to the army base the other day after the relief workers could not deal with the angry mob of locals. The only way to satisfy the victims, it seems, is by facilitating relief work through local politicians.
“This is as far as we can get,” said Maharjan, after watching the local-level all-party groups load the relief material. “We keep reminding the politicians to let go of politics for a while, but it’s up to them to take heed or not. If they work together, people will thank them for it; if not, their heads will roll.”
So far, there seems to be one instance where a local leader was punished for looking after only his vested interest. Local people at Melamchi Bazaar said that Dahal, who kept taking aid only to Sikharpur, was beaten up by youths from Jyamire VDC. Sindhupalchok and other earthquake-affected districts will hopefully see no more of such violence.
Relief work will soon move on to the rebuilding phase, and unless the politicians work together, rehabilitation will be impossible. Tents and tarps are not permanent solutions. Houses that can withstand another major quake need to be built. So do schools and hospitals and whole communities. As Maharjan kept saying to the politicians gathered at the military barracks, the aftermath of the earthquake is a time of crisis, but also of opportunities—a chance to serve humanity at one of its worst times, the ultimate goal of a true politician.