Nepal Quake: Too deep for tears

There is no doubt that Nepal has a very, very uphill task of reconstruction and of regaining self-confidence ahead of it. One can only pray that this Himalayan jewel will rise to shine again

Perhaps the only other tragedy that has impacted the people of Nepal in such a shattering manner in its recent history is the cold-blooded assassination of nearly its entire royal family on June 1, 2001. His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, his wife, his daughter and his youngest son died in a hail of gunfire at their once-a-month Friday evening dinner at their palace. The killer was none other than the King’s eldest son, Crown Prince Dipendra who died two days later from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The motivation was apparently a dispute between the Crown Prince and his parents over his choice of a bride.

Although it is probably not of the same scale as the Himalayan ‘tsunami’ (caused by heavy rainfall and landslides) that swept across the Indian state of Uttarakhand a couple of years ago, the devastation resulting from the earthquake of magnitude 7.9 on the Richter scale that struck Nepal a week ago is no less damning and spectacular.

The initial shock waves that lasted a bare two minutes have been compounded by aftershocks that followed, about eighteen in all occurring over the ensuing 24-48 hours and generating this time psychological waves of fear – people are preferring to sleep out in makeshift relief camps rather than returning to their damaged homes although there have been no further aftershocks in the past several hours.

The media, which has otherwise been doing a tremendous work of keeping the people and the world at large informed, has been requested by the Nepali authorities to refrain from rumour-mongering so as not to frighten people further, in order that they can return to their homes.

What we are getting by way of information are the horrifying pictures being beamed on television, gathered by the teams of intrepid reporters from the Indian media that are braving the elements along with the victims to give as accurate a picture as possible of what is actually the state of affairs on the ground. The early aftershocks have been followed by heavy rainfall that has been impeded rescue efforts, with shutting down of the Kathmandu airport at various times.

Nevertheless, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and National Defence Relief Force swung into immediate action, and have been at work on a 24/7 basis to bring supplies and airlift the injured to safer areas. Medical teams belonging to the Indian Army Medical Corps – the first contingent was headed by lady doctors — have set up field hospitals which are providing first-aid as well as admitting and operating on patients, even having ICU facilities under these unbelievably difficult conditions.

Tourists and other Indian nationals based in Nepal have also been airlifted back to India, but despite the cracks on the roads, buses have plied from the Indian side to bring back other Indian nationals. One bus driver being interviewed said that he would do any sacrifice, if need be drive non-stop for 24 hours, to give hope to those in distress and return them safely to their families. In times of huge tragedy, we often see such acts of courage and sacrifice all over the world.

The IAF has also helped to rescue mountaineers at the Everest Base Camp situated at an altitude of about 19,000 feet, about eighteen of whom alas succumbed to a massive avalanche that rolled down the mountain towards the EBC. Among those who managed to get saved from the avalanche is an eleven-year girl from Maharashtra, Shyavani Kulkarni, who answered to a question that she was only a ‘little afraid’ when this happened, and would come back to EBC again in future. There are several similar stories of others who are putting up a brave face, and have decided to stay back and help.

As usual with calamities of this scale, rescue efforts predominate in the first few days to be followed by the relief phase, when supplies of food, water, medicines, blankets and tents assume top priority. Indian Prime Minister Modi, affirming that ‘Nepal’s pain is our pain,’ committed his government to do whatever was needed to help the Nepali people to work back towards normalcy.

The Indian side itself was having to cope with smaller quakes that had occurred in the adjoining states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal where, all the same, about seventy people have died too. Speaking to a reporter of NDTV, the Finance Minister of Nepal acknowledged and thanked Mr Modi for taking a personal interest in his country’s tragedy, and being in touch with the President and Prime Minister of the country.

The number of deaths has already crossed the 5000 mark, and when such large-scale catastrophes happen, it is a given that as the days go by the number of casualties goes on increasing, and it would not surprise if in Nepal this reaches 10,000 as the Prime Minister fears – and for all we know perhaps even more. There will be many people who will be unaccounted for, and enormous numbers of injured needing urgent medical attention. Besides, as the days go by hope for finding people alive under the debris recedes, but relatives and families keep their fingers crossed for the sometimes odd ‘miracle’ that surfaces after days of search.

Several countries have sent help in the form of teams for both rescue and relief, to which are added the several NGOs that mobilize themselves in such situations. One of the major problems that come up in these circumstances is ensuring synergy and coordination among the multitude of volunteers, so that their efforts are directed where they are needed and there is no duplication. Usually it the national authority that takes the lead in this process, and the Finance Minister of Nepal has given the assurance of such oversight.

Another major problem, once medical attention — which means mainly treatment of injuries in the immediate aftermath of any catastrophe – has been ensured, is the prevention of epidemics breaking out. This is almost inevitable because of the poor and inadequate, if not altogether absent sanitary facilities, that prevail, complicated by the unavailability of potable water or its limitation. One cannot simply imagine what this means in practice – but those who lived through the cyclones Alix and Carol in 1961 will have not only an idea, but a clear picture of the situation as they faced the same scenario.

Colonial type houses made of wood and covered with iron sheets were mostly razed to the ground, this at a time when the toilet was usually a shed in the backyard, of the bucket or pit type latrine, and therefore awash in the floods that had accompanied the cyclone. Water pipes were broken, water was scarce and dirtied, debris littered the yards and the streets. Multiply this a million-fold to have an idea of what the people of Nepal are facing, the area over which this spectacle is spread being so much vaster than our tiny island, with the affected areas so widespread as well.

In fact, it’s only after a few days that aerial reconnaissance flights could take off to survey the far-off villages, in many of which the extent of the damage has still not been assessed. One village, Bartak, an iconic one popular with tourists coming to live out the ‘ethnic’ Nepali experience, has been almost completely devastated, with 90% of its 1200 houses brought down. Over and above the immediate requirements, one longer term concern is the reconstruction works that will take place: if new types of houses made of more modern material are built, then this will take away from the traditional brick type that brought tourists and therefore the local population’s means of livelihood, which may then suffer as tourists will keep away. So reconstruction has to be customized, but at the same time must be secure.

How long this will take is anybody’s guess if one is to go by the experience of Haiti, which is still not recovered enough despite the billions of dollars of aid that were pledged and that came in. There is no doubt that Nepal has a very, very uphill task of reconstruction and of regaining self-confidence ahead of it. One can only pray that this Himalayan jewel will rise to shine again.


* Published in print edition on 1  May  2015

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