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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

Anger rises in Nepal over government’s response to earthquake

The opposition Maoist party claims that the government's response has been ineffective, writes Samanth Subramanian.

Nepalese citizens block traffic and shout slogans against the government on April 29, 2015, as they protest the slow pace of aid delivery following the earthquake. Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo
Nepalese citizens block traffic and shout slogans against the government on April 29, 2015, as they protest the slow pace of aid delivery following the earthquake. Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo

NEW DELHI // The death toll from Nepal’s earthquake climbed to nearly 6,000 on Thursday, as public discontent over the government’s struggle to cope with the devastation spilt over into the political system.

Nepal has enlisted aid from several countries, notably India, but relief goods have piled up at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport, with authorities unable to transport them quickly into the quake-hit city and the villages beyond.

Leaders from the opposition Maoist party have begun to blame the government, led by prime minister Sushil Koirala, for being ineffective. Dina Nath Sharma, a Maoist spokesperson, told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Mr Koirala had acted too slowly and was “showing an insensitive attitude at this time of great national loss.”

However, Nihar Nayak, a Nepal researcher affiliated with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a New Delhi-based think tank, suggested on Thursday that the Maoists’ criticism of the government was at least partly aimed at scoring political points.

Many roads in rural Nepal are still impassable as a result of landslides that occurred earlier this week. Medical services are finding it difficult to handle the large number of injured patients, while in villages, people continue to live outdoors, uncertain if their cracked and damaged houses are safe.

“My uncle in Kathmandu tells me every day that he and his neighbours are tired of waiting for proper help,” said Shiv Kumar Khatri, a 31-year-old Nepali who works as a driver in New Delhi. “They have received some food supplies, but nothing more. They are living in tents and don’t know where to go.”

The prime minister, who returned from a state visit to Thailand on Saturday, the day the earthquake hit, has promised compensation payments of roughly US$1,000 (Dh3,673) to families who have lost people in the disaster. On Wednesday, he visited hospitals and schools, even as protesters demonstrated outside the parliament in Kathmandu, calling for more buses to help them return to their villages.

The government responded by requisitioning school buses to take people home.

However, Minendra Rijal, Nepal’s communications minister, admitted on Tuesday that there had been “some weaknesses in managing the relief operation”.

More reports of protests emerged on Wednesday from the village of Sangachowk, roughly three hours from Kathmandu, where residents blocked lorry convoys carrying food supplies.

“We have been given no food by the government,” Udhav Giri, a Sangachowk villager, told Reuters. “Lorries carrying rice go past and don’t stop. The district headquarters [Kathmandu] is getting all the food.”

Nepal may also prove unable to handle any outbreaks of diseases that may follow the earthquake. According to a study by the World Health Organisation, the country of 28 million has only 2.1 doctors and roughly 50 hospital beds per 10,000 people.

The scale of the damage is partially a reflection of political divisions within Nepal, said Mr Nayak, the Nepal researcher. However, he said that the earthquake will likely only widen those divisions further.

Nepal’s monarchy was abolished in 2008, but the Maoists and their rival Nepali Congress party have been unable forge a new path towards constitutional democracy.

The country’s first constituent assembly — elected by popular vote and dominated by the Maoists — was intended to draft the new constitution, but was dissolved in 2012 because it was unable to reach a consensus.

The second constituent assembly, formed in 2013 and headed by the Nepali Congress, missed its January 22, deadline to create a draft of the constitution, introducing a high degree of instability into Nepal’s politics.

“The new date to promulgate the constitution was May 29, and I think Nepal may still make that deadline,” Mr Nayak said. “But it’s also possible that, because of this crisis, the whole thing may be pushed by a month or two.”

Once the constitution has been set in place, fresh elections will follow, Mr Nayak added. “When that happens, the Maoists will know how to take advantage of this present situation.”

“They will focus on the failures of this government to carry out rescue and rehabilitation smoothly,” he said. “They’re beginning to point at this already.”

As a result of the instability over the last few years, several political initiatives — including a National Strategy for Disaster Risk Management — have been stuck in limbo since 2008. A report prepared by the home ministry in 2013, outlining how Nepal’s buildings and infrastructure was vulnerable to earthquakes, was not acted upon either.

DB Koirala, the chairman of the Himalayan Rescue Association, a non-profit that works with the government to rescue unwell or injured climbers from Nepal’s mountains, said on Thursday that some unrest was creeping into Kathmandu.

“In the long run, though, I think the people will understand,” Mr Koirala said. “They will understand that this is a very big disaster, and that nothing can be done to alleviate this in a matter of days. It takes time.”

“The government is doing the best that it can,” he added.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae