| October 20, 2020

Collateral damage

Collateral damage
Natural calamities hit societies like aggressive forces in a war. The marginalized sections of population—the poor, the weak, the outcast, the young, the aged, the sick, the physically challenged and the differently-abled—are often in the frontlines of its first volley of attack. The middleclass has to face its wrath as the rearguard of society. By the time disasters reach the really rich ensconced within multiple rings of fortification of physical, economic, political, social, cultural and emotional safety measures put in place for all such eventualities, the intensity of the blow had already dissipated.

The dead have no caste, creed, class, community or even country. It will be futile to categorize nearly 10,000 victims of the Gorkha Earthquake that struck Nepal with the force of several warheads on 25/4 at 11:56 AM. Survivors however—altogether eight million of them according to initial estimates, with varying degree of damages and suffering—have to put up with who, what and where they are even as they struggle to overcome the tragedy.
There is a reason relief supplies reached Tundikhel first in the middle of powerful aftershocks. Like in all human transactions, physical location matters most even during crises. Closeness to the center of political, administrative and diplomatic power draws immediate attention. Rescue and relief teams arrive at settlements along the road or aside flatlands suitable for landing helicopters even during inclement weather where the relatively well off of the region tend to congregate for conveniences that proximity to transportation facilities bring. The marginalized are accursed to live in marginal lands. They remain out of sight and out of mind.

Socio-cultural location of a person is equally important. It is easier for those with cousins or in-laws in government machinery to benefit from rescue efforts. Information during catastrophes is even more important than in times of normalcy. With FM radios blaring announcements in a tone and language that few understood in many parts of the affected region, people had to rely on the most ancient channel of communication: Word of mouth. This is a mode that puts the powerful at a huge advantage over the poor and the weak.

The aftermath of an earthquake is probably not the right time to raise issues of identity and dignity. Like wars, natural calamities too tend to release nationalistic hysteria among people least affected by their fury. But questions need to be asked: Why the marginalized have remained more or less in the same condition as their ancestors for centuries and why there has been almost no change in the power relation on the ground despite several political experimentations after the overthrow of Rana regime more than six decades ago? A society that refuses to raise uncomfortable questions is at the permanent risk of decay and disintegration.

Reactionary resurgence

A reactionary is a person opposing political reforms or social progress. They are integral part of every society. Often they remain dormant but emerge out of woodworks in the aftermath of every crisis blaming the change for all ills. Some reactionaries genuinely believe that the reason instruments of the state largely failed to function optimally was because they have been weakened by popular clamor for progressivism, secularism, federalism and inclusion!

Like all wars, calamities tend to benefit the rich. That's one of the fundamental features of all variations of capitalism. Feudal lords of yore fattened themselves upon the misery of surfs during famines. Usurers sucked wages of menials by lending them for death rituals of victims at the time of outbreak of infectious diseases. Scarcity following floods or landslides helps traders multiply their fortunes. Industrialists benefit from cheap labor and high demand during phases of reconstruction.

Investors, bankers, brokers, property dealers and insurers see their transactions boom once rehabilitation begins. Financial businesses thrive on fear of uncertainty among the middleclass that accept lower interest rates for their deposits, agree to pay higher service charges upon loans, fork out more fees for less expert advice, and pay bigger premiums for smaller coverage in the belief that professionals know better than they do about managing their meager assets.

In the dictionary of free-market fundamentalism, terms such as hoarding, black-marketing or profiteering have no meaning: They are simply ways of maximizing return on investment by skirting around laws of the land. Some do it with finesse, a few others are crude, but almost everyone indulges in making the best use of regulatory provisions through the help of legal eagles, accounting professionals, fixers, agents, advisors, propagandists and lobbyists of all kinds. They are perhaps correct in their assessment that the aftermath of 25/4 is one of the best opportunities they will ever have in their lifetimes to multiply their fortunes.

Regressive upsurge

Like reactionary, regression too is not a pejorative term. Though not exactly value-neutral, regression simply means a return to a former state, which could imply either restoration of a discredited regime or restitution of peace and order. The latter meaning of the term appeals to starry-eyed romantics of the West, terrified as they are of Maoists and Madheshis in the Shangri-la of their imagination.

The land of Never Ending Pandemonium And Laments has remained sovereign, howsoever imperfect, throughout its long history. That's the reason it never had an independence movement and continues to look at the Western world with wide-eyed anticipation. Like in all colonial and neo-colonial situations, the comprador benefits most from foreign interventions. That keeps the erudite and the vocal class in submissive silence even as Rudyard Kipling's twenty-first century sahibs shouldering the white man's burden in godforsaken spots of the globe innovate newer ways of maintaining their control.

The sahibs usually collaborate with the westernized elite in capital cities who can recognize which wine goes with what kind of cheese that can sometimes be flown in as relief supplies in the name of hard-pressed rescue workers.

Even quarter of a century after the fall of Panchayat, a significant section of Kathmandu intelligentsia, which functions as the voice of the Permanent Establishment of the Nation (PEON), continues to hold Mahendrabadi delusions—of forging a country of one people, one language, one religion, one dress, one ideology, one what have you, in a diverse country of multiple cultures—sacrosanct. After the Spring Awakening of 2006 and Madhesh Uprisings thereafter, they can no longer claim openly for its restoration, so they have begun to clamor for restitution, which essentially entails nothing but Panchayat without the king and with pliant parties functioning within the limits that the PEON sets.

The so-called local government units of the post-1990 era were continuation of the Panchayat legacy with new names that had helped rehabilitate all the king's men as well as their cousins and cronies—consisting almost exclusively of subservient Hindu, Aryan, Male and Nepali-speaker (HAMNS) in Pahad and their lackeys in Tarai-Madhesh—respectably in what was in the 1990s a new setup. There was a reason they had become primary targets of Maoists in the initial phase of the armed conflict. Almost all former Panchas of village and district Panchayat had captured VDCs and DDCs by discarding their old monarchist hats and donning caps of different parties. Whenever local Maoists looked at their faces, they saw a centrally-picked Pancha rather than a representative of the people.

Any talk of local election at this juncture is a call for restoration. That's a perfectly valid position to take—conservatism has its adherents everywhere in the world, they have recently won an election in Britain after sweeping India into their fold—but the trick of couching it in liberal terms is ingenious. Local elections without a constitution institutionalizing federalism will be meaningless.

So what has really fallen with hutments of 'lesser Nepalis'—the Tamangs of Sindhupalchok, the Gurungs of Gorkha, the Newars of Bhaktapur, and Dalits and poor everywhere in affected districts—is their dream of building a more equitable Nepal. The progressive agenda of Spring Awakening of 2006 and the inclusion and federalism missions of Madhesh Uprisings have been two biggest casualties of the killer quakes for now.

Little wonder, the comfortable classes seem to be in a hurry to rebuild that erection of nationalistic hubris in the middle of the capital city. Homes, schools and hospitals in the countryside will probably have to wait for the formation of fully empowered federal units. Reactionaries and regressive can delay the process, but as the great French writer Victor Hugo prophesized, ultimately nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
CK Lal

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