By RAKESH SOOD – The Nepali people are a patient lot but will not forgive their leaders if even after such a tragedy as the devastating earthquake, political instability and bickering hampers Nepal’s reconstruction and rehabilitation for which the international community has been so forthcoming
It is said that positive developments seldom receive the media attention they deserve. This is certainly true of post-quake events in Nepal. Last week, Kathmandu was host to the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, a successful event both in terms of its preparatory work and the international response generated. The role of the Indian delegation, led by Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, was effective and non-controversial. Domestic politics took a positive turn with the agreement between the four major parties announced on June 8 which could provide a much needed impetus to the constitution drafting exercise which has been stalled for over five years.
The quake’s toll
On April 25, a devastating earthquake measuring 7.8 (on the moment magnitude) struck Nepal. Its epicentre was Barpak, in the historic Gorkha district, about 76 kilometres northwest of Kathmandu. Though an earthquake prone country, Nepal had not suffered an earthquake of similar magnitude for 80 years. Since then, there have been more than 300 aftershocks including one of 7.3 magnitude on May 12, with its epicentre near Mt. Everest — 3,000 landslides were also reported. The tragedy has claimed 9,000 lives with hundreds still missing, making it difficult to gauge the extent of damage in some of the remote areas. Yet, the Nepal Planning Commission was able to present a credible ‘Post Disaster Needs Assessment’ document in the run-up to the June 25 conference, by analysing the damage and estimating the resources needed to get the economy back on track.
Fourteen out of Nepal’s 75 districts have been declared “crisis hit” with another neighbouring 17 categorised as “partially affected”. The widespread destruction covers private and public buildings (nearly 5,00,000 buildings destroyed and 3,00,000 damaged), heritage sites (Kathmandu valley has seven UNESCO World Heritage sites), rural roads and bridges, trekking routes which form the backbone of the tourist industry, hydel plants and agricultural land. The total damage is estimated at $7 billion with nearly $5.4 billion as the losses of the private sector and households; the balance $1.6 billion is public buildings and infrastructure. GDP growth estimate has been curtailed from 4.6 per cent to 3 per cent for the current financial year. While the loss to physical assets is estimated at $5 billion, the income loss is $2 billion, accounting for a third of the annual GDP. Rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts are further complicated by the fact that the worst affected 14 districts are also among the relatively poorer districts where a large part of the male population traditionally migrates for employment.
The document pegs the total financial needs at $6.7 billion, made up of the social sector ($4 billion), the productive sector ($1.1 billion), infrastructure ($750 million), with governance, environment, gender and social protection needs making up the balance. The conference has been deemed a success with pledges of $4.4 billion made by the countries and multilateral agencies represented in Kathmandu. India took the lead with a pledge of $1 billion followed by China announcing $483 million. The World Bank has indicated $200 million for housing reconstruction, $100 million for budgetary support and another $200 million to be redirected from other projects. The Asian Development Bank has committed $600 million, Japan $260 million, the United States $130 million, the United Kingdom $110 million, and the European Union $110 million. What is now needed is speedy planning and effective implementation on the ground.
A positive Indian role
The Indian pledge is 40 per cent grant and the balance in the form of soft loans. Further, it is in addition to the $1 billion assistance package announced last August during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Nepal, bringing India’s total commitment to $2 billion, over the next five year period. The focus will be on housing reconstruction including public buildings, heritage restoration given our shared religious and cultural history, rebuilding infrastructure like roads, bridges and power transmission systems, agriculture, education and health, and structures for long-term disaster mitigation. It is an ambitious programme and will need to be managed carefully with the various Indian agencies and the newly set up Nepal Reconstruction Authority.
Traditionally, the problem with a number of Indian funded projects has been significant time delays and consequently, budget overruns. The integrated check posts, terai roads, railway linkages and the Raxaul-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline are prime examples of such projects. While the Indian Embassy can ensure local follow up, what is needed is effective coordination at the Delhi end. Either somebody needs to be appointed to undertake periodic visits for ensuring that the momentum does not slacken or perhaps the Prime Minister’s Additional Principal Secretary, P.K. Mishra, who had visited Nepal in May and also accompanied Ms. Swaraj, will have to take on this role. He would also need to be sensitive to Nepali sensibilities to ensure local cooperation. So far, India’s contribution as the major development and reconstruction partner has been handled well, with discretion and without any chest-thumping about India’s role which often leads to resentment in the neighbourhood. The Nepali media (and the Indian media too) is prone to facile commentary about Indian and Chinese competition for influence in Nepal. A recent example was in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake on April 25 when India responded swiftly with its disaster relief flights and search and rescue teams but constant tweeting and Indian media coverage tom-tomming Indian role amplified into insensitive megaphone diplomacy leading to a backlash in Nepal. What needs to be understood is that while the Chinese media may have been as adulatory about the work of Chinese teams in Nepal, Nepali citizens do not watch Chinese TV but they are hooked to Indian TV channels. Hence the importance of walking and talking softly in our neighbourhood, something we often forget — as in the case of recent operations against the NSCN(K) camps in the India-Myanmar border region — causing discomfiture and embarrassment all around.
It was a wise decision on Mr. Modi’s part to depute Ms. Swaraj to Kathmandu though Nepali Finance Minister Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat had come to Delhi to personally convey Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s invitation. While Mr. Modi’s presence would have generated more media coverage, some of it would have had negative overtones as happened during his visit last November for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit when he called off his trips to Janakpur and Lumbini. In addition to the media, the fractured nature of Nepali domestic politics is also quicksand for an Indian political leader, which Ms. Swaraj wisely sidestepped so that the focus remained on the conference and India’s gesture spoke for itself.
There has been one positive development in Nepali politics though in the aftermath of the earthquake. The all round criticism of Nepal’s political leadership and its visible absence during the rescue and relief operations has forced at least the four major parties to reach an agreement on the vexed issue of “federalism” which has held up progress on Constitution drafting for years. On June 8, the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), Maoists and one Madhesi group led by Bijay Gachchadar, together accounting for well over two-thirds of the Constituent Assembly (CA) strength, announced a 16-point agreement. The Maoists accepted a parliamentary system with a ceremonial presidency and it was agreed to have a federal Nepal with eight provinces. The boundary delineation has been left to an expert committee though guidelines of “identity” based on ethnicity, language, culture and “viability” based on economics, natural resources and infrastructure potential have been provided. The names of the provinces, an emotive issue, will be determined by the provincial assemblies. A bicameral legislature will consist of a lower house of 275 members of whom 165 will be directly elected and the balance through proportional representation; the upper house will have a strength of 45, five members from each of the eight provinces and another five to be nominated. This would create a far more manageable number than the current CA which numbers 601.
This understanding has faced opposition from a number of Madhesi parties as also from the hard line Maoist faction. Legal challenges have also been posed that need to be overcome. Some opponents of the federal system perceive an Indian hand in the legal challenge on the rationale that the present regime in India would like to see a Hindu rashtra restored in Nepal and would also be more assertive in supporting the Madhesis. Notwithstanding such conspiracy theories, the four party agreement is a step forward in Nepal’s political transition. The CA elected in 2008 was to conclude the Constitution drafting exercise in two years but finally lapsed in 2012 without completing the task. A new CA elected in 2013 has been struggling with the same issues. Meanwhile, no government has lasted more than two years and all kinds of coalitions have been tried.
The Nepali people are a patient lot but will not forgive their leaders if even after such a tragedy, political instability and bickering hampers Nepal’s reconstruction and rehabilitation for which the international community has been so forthcoming.
Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal. E-mail: [email protected]. This article has been originally published in The Hindu on July 3.