What can we do for you?” is a question almost every friend that earthquake-devastated Nepal has, is asking. Nepal is not being able say “No, thank you.” It is confused about what it wants its friends and donors to do. Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat told foreign mission chiefs that the government is facing a cash crunch. But in the absence of a clear blueprint for reconstruction — combined with the notoriety Nepal has earned for corruption, statelessness and lack of accountability — how much donors will offer in cash is debatable.
P.K. Mishra, a senior official in the Indian PMO, visited Nepal, assuring Kathmandu that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was willing to do anything and everything, provided Nepal was clear about what it wanted India to do. Apparently aware that the Indian embassy is not very popular with the Nepalese, Modi has dispatched top aides. Mishra was the third, after NSA Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar. Within hours of Mishra’s departure without a wishlist, the Chinese made the same offer. The US, meanwhile, has increased its aid volume unilaterally.
The 6,00,000-plus families needing shelter, with the pre-monsoon rains adding to their misery, are looking for a more secure and permanent roof, preferably of corrugated zinc. Mishra has promised adequate supply of that too. But the visible lack of planning and coordination in the supply of construction materials by the government, which has declared a monopoly on spending for the reconstruction through the PM’s Relief Fund, is deterring many donors. Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s only billionaire, has offered to build 1,000 houses. Chokyi Nygma Rinpoche, a widely respected Buddhist monk of Tibetan origin who has personally donated Rs 5 million and collected a sum of $1,60,000, intends to launch the reconstruction of villages, since he hopes people across the world have enough resources, compassion and the will to help on the scale needed. But what dampens the spirit of such individuals is the corruption and infighting.
Amid this confusion, the ruling coalition partners have begun toying with the idea of replacing PM Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress. But they are not even clear about who would be a better leader for executing the national reconstruction plan, which the parties have not yet bothered to draw up. The government, for reasons still unexplained, remained firm in declining its permission for three British Chinooks for the rescue work in Nepal.
The US Marines group that participated in the search and rescue mission has gone back. Only the Chinese and Indians are left, and they have ostensibly promised to work in a spirit of cooperation. But they are mutually suspicious and have a competitive zeal to increase their acceptability and respect in the neighbourhood, which is of such geostrategic importance. The earthquake and its aftershock have created a situation in which many are rushing to Nepal’s aid to project their humane face. Unfortunately, ordinary Nepalese view most external players with distrust, given their brazen involvement in Nepal’s internal politics over the last nine years of the country’s messy political transition.
While the donors’ equations with Nepal’s politics are complex, complicated by this lack of trust, the government will invite disastrous consequences if local philanthropists and those raising funds are not allowed to work for the victims, in collaboration with the people’s committees, and are instead forced to go through the PM’s Relief Fund mechanism alone. The government needs to take account of the victims’ dignity and self-respect. Most of them want to begin constructing modest houses with their own contributions and support from local initiatives. This is in contrast to the government’s attitude, which is comfortable stretching its arms out for money, without any plan as to how to spend it.
This article has been originally published in THE INDIAN EXPRESS on May 25, 2015.