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Nepal feels both geopolitical and geotectonic squeeze

Himalayan nation under pressure to stay prepared for fresh tensions, geographic and political

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A laborer sits atop debris from of a monastery damaged during the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu on Jan. 11.   © Reuters

Sandwiched between two of the world's largest countries, Nepal has always described itself as a "small" country. But with a population of 28 million, it is still the world's 40th most populous nation. It is small only compared with China, to the north, and India, to the south, which together account for one-third of humanity.

It is also one of the most vertical countries in the world, rising from near sea level in the southern plains to the top of Mt. Everest at 8,848 meters, within a distance of only 80 km. Nepalis like to joke that there are six directions in their country: north, south, east, west, up and down. This makes the country very scenic -- and very seismic.

Nepal is the oldest nation state in South Asia, and fought a war with British India 200 years ago to defend its independence. It also sent its army across the northern Himalayan border twice to invade Tibet in the 19th century, but the campaigns were not successful because the Chinese empire intervened to aid the Tibetans. Nepal has historically felt wedged in by its two giant neighbors and the country's founding king said in 1760 that his new nation was like a "yam between two boulders."

To this day, most Nepalis still feel that their yam is being squeezed. The belief in Kathmandu that New Delhi micromanages Nepal's politics is probably exaggerated, but there has always been a degree of meddling ever since British colonial days. The most recent proof of this was India's blockade of the 1,300 km open border between the two countries for five months in 2015, which stopped the supply of food, fuel and other imports. The blockade not only decimated Nepal's economy and set the country's development back a decade or more, but also hampered the delivery of relief supplies after the devastating earthquake on April 25, 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people.

As the country marks the second anniversary of the earthquake this week, the government has been the target of blistering criticism by survivors, relief agencies and the international community for bungling the reconstruction process. Most of the two million people affected are still living in temporary shelters, few of the 700,000 homes that were destroyed have been restored, and many families have tired of waiting for a promised $3,000 government reconstruction grant and are rebuilding on their own.

There are many reasons for the delay: a shortfall in international aid, government interference in relief efforts, duplication and wastage by international relief agencies, shortages of fuel and construction material due to a blockade by India, and political instability caused by a dispute over the new Nepalese constitution.

Within two months of the earthquake, the government conducted a damage assessment report that estimated that $9.38 billion would be needed to rebuild homes and infrastructure. A meeting of international donors in Kathmandu in July 2015 pledged $4.1 billion, more than half of it in loans from India and China. However, two years later only $2.73 billion has actually been received, with some donors having spent money directly through relief agencies and others failing to keep their promises at all.

Bureaucratic bungling

Some donors have said the reason they have not provided the money pledged is because they do not trust the government to spend it in a timely and efficient manner. They have a point. The National Reconstruction Authority, an autonomous agency that is supposed to coordinate the aid effort, was set up nine months after the disaster. By the time it was fully staffed, its head had been sacked when the government changed. There has also been a breakdown in coordination between government ministries as well as between the government and the NRA.

Politicians have blatantly interfered in appointments to the NRA in the hope of either controlling the funds or taking credit for relief at election time. The upshot is a glaring lack of any sense of urgency in Kathmandu, even as survivors hunker down in tin huts to face their third monsoon in the mountains since the earthquake.

The only bright spot is that the former NRA chief executive, Govinda Pokhrel, a German-educated engineer, has been brought back into the NRA after his earlier sacking and is trying to make up for lost time by rushing to distribute the remaining housing grants and allowing families more flexibility in adapting seismic-resistant design elements into their new homes. The NRA itself has become a convenient lightning rod for politicians to cover up their own delays as Nepalis prepare to go to the polls for the first local elections in 20 years.

Nepal has been ruled by a series of political cartels since the civil conflict ended in 2006. Weak public grassroots pressure resulting from a lack of accountability at the local level led to the delay in aid relief in earthquake areas. The country is supposed to hold three elections in 2017, with the first one for village, town and district councils scheduled for May 14. A deadlock over provisions of federalism in the new constitution had made polls uncertain.  However, a late-night breakthrough in negotiations on Saturday means that local polls will now be held in two phases -- in May and June. 

Despite the death and destruction caused by the 2015 earthquake and the delay in relief efforts, it is clear the disaster could have been much worse. Since it struck on a Saturday, the lives of tens of thousands of children were probably saved since schools are normally housed in brick and clay buildings that quickly collapsed. The earthquake also only affected 11 of Nepal's 75 districts. Next time, however, Nepal may not be so lucky. Seismologists warn that the next "big one" could happen at any time since the accumulated tectonic stress below central Nepal has not been completely released.

There are few indications that Nepal's government or people have learned their lessons from the earthquake two years ago. Flimsy concrete apartment blocks are still going up in Kathmandu, while many of the houses in the countryside have been rebuilt using salvaged material and without any alteration in their design. More worryingly, there is almost no capacity to conduct search and rescue operations for those trapped in collapsed high-rises.

Besides enduring a geopolitical squeeze between India and China, Nepal will also need to maintain its preparedness for fresh geotectonic tension as the Indian plate continues to push up underneath China.

Kunda Dixit is the editor and publisher of the weekly Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu.

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