Kathmandu – the capital city of Nepal with over 3 million inhabitants cramped within less than 500 square kilometer – is quite vulnerable to earthquakes. Conservative estimates show that in the event of an earthquake of similar magnitude of 8.4 in the Richter scale, which it suffered in 1934 killing more than 8000 people, at least 100,000 people will die and many more will be injured. If this is true, how are we preparing ourselves to handle such a large scale crisis? The blindingly obvious fact is that Nepal’s public institutions are poorly equipped to manage any crisis. Recently, a massive fire engulfed an electronic factory in the valley. Eight fire brigades – the entire fleet available in the valley- could not put out the fire in 10 hours. The factory turned into ashes in front of every one’s eyes with an estimated loss of about one billion rupees. The reason: the water hose simply did not reach the storeroom where the trouble began from. Another example: in recent years, the number of bus accidents has increased with the extension of roads to hill districts. The death toll in each of these accidents is usually high (sometimes >30) because the rescue does not arrive quick enough. Sometime, it takes several hours before the first help reaches the site if the accident has occurred at night. Many injured, meanwhile, bleed to death.
Instead of learning from past events and improving its operation strategy, every event is taken as a starter and the responsible authorities seem comfortable in looking for support and advice from others. No government ever tried to strengthen the state machinery and make it more responsive and functional. As a result, the state machinery neither has the network required to function at the time of an emergency nor has it the knowledge of how to respond to the unexpected. Here are some classic examples of the shamelessness.
A Pokhara bound Twin Otter plane with 19 passengers from Jomsom, Mustang went missing after about 10 minutes of its take off. The flight route normally follows the Kali Gandaki Gorge with towering mountains inhabited by people up to about 7000 feet on either side. When the government failed to get any information about the missing plane for three days the pressure from passengers’ families and friends forced the government to reveal its plan in locating the plane. In response to the pressure and to justify that the government is doing all it can, the responsible minister appeared on the national television to announce that the government is planning to request the US government to use its satellite to locate the plane.
Another frustrating response was seen when Flight 311 of Thai Airways from Bangkok with 113 people on board went missing as it entered the Valley in 1992. There was no clue about the whereabouts of the plane for more than three days. The search team was reported looking for the missing plane around Phulchoki hills located on the south east direction. When it failed to get any clue, the government, in a very responsible way, announced that anyone with the first information about the plane would be rewarded with cash prize.
During the last days of the Panchayat era, a Kathmandu bound night bus with more than 60 passengers fell off the road in the Trishuli River in the early hours killing more than 20 people. In those days, communication was limited to SSB radios of police and some telephones in market places. People relied on the state run radio for any news. On that day, the state was celebrating the birthday of the then queen. The news on the national radio was full of birthday events and felicitations. The anxious family members of the passengers of the ill-fated bus had already heard about the accident from hearsay, but there was nothing about it on the official radio. The reason given for not covering the accident was that no news of death would be aired before the auspicious news of the birthday was broadcast.
Things have changed a lot since these events. The country has moved from a closed democracy of Panchayat system through constitutional monarchy to a federal republic. People have changed and so have their needs and aspirations. The horrendous urbanization of the valley has made it unimaginably crowded with hardly any open space for people to gather during the crisis event such as an earthquake that affects all at once. The narrow streets with multiple bends are not capable of handling the congestion that would be caused by terrified traffic. The network of dilapidated power lines will add further risks. The newly developed areas with multistoried buildings and no open space around cannot be good news for rescue workers. The substandard structural quality of the buildings constructed in the past three decades cannot be ignored as a sleeping dragon.
The most frustrating thing, to make things worse, is the state of the failing State. What is seen as a functioning government has gradually turned in to a money siphoning project. Corruption is so rampant that people have to be prepared to pay the said amount to officials (with no bargain) if they wish to get things done, whether it is to get a driving license, tax certificate, land certificate, or renew vehicle registration. So much so that even migrant workers, who have increasingly become central in sustaining national economy through remittance, have to bribe the officials to get immigration stamp on the passport. A big chunk of development budget goes to the pockets of those in power. Under the given circumstances, creating the networks and reinforcing the institutions to build mechanisms required to handle the looming crisis is not easy.
The first step to avert a crisis is to be prepared for it by building a road map for everyone to follow and creating mechanisms to ensure basic support of public institutions, but in a true sense, Kathmandu seems to be sinking deep in the opposite of it: no road map and crumbling mechanisms that once were in place.