Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tremors and timidity in Nepal

I am safe for now. Thank you for your concern and support. Stayed in a makeshift camp/tent since Sunday. Hopefully, things will get back to normal, especially the aftershocks and availability of food, water and essentials.

25 April 2015 is going to be an unforgettable moment in life. The massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake (on the Richter scale) hit several places, including Kathmandu. I had just finished lunch at my colleague’s place when we felt the first jolt. It lasted for over a minute, which felt like over an hour of a terrifying jolt. We ran to an open space by the local river for safety. There aren’t many open spaces in Kathmandu due to unplanned and unregulated urban planning, and haphazard housing and construction. The next 48 hours were the most grueling ones as the strong and frequent aftershocks (on top of the occasional rain) created difficulties in finding proper shelter, water and food. The tremors continued well into at least Tuesday night, forcing people to stay outside in makeshift tents or whatever shelter they could find in open spaces.

The destruction caused by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks is overwhelming. Public infrastructure is damaged and some villages are completely wiped out. Worse, thousands of people died and many more remain unaccounted for and injured.

The things that have cropped up in the last few days bear the hallmark of a weak bureaucracy, fractured political system and a deep rooted institutional inadequacy and incapacity to manage logistics and large-scale operations:

  1. Nepal has not faced such a dire situation in recent history. The extent of human and physical destruction caused by the earthquake is unprecedented. Hence, the post earthquake logistical management has been chaotic within the government and a nightmare for the public. The state machinery and political leadership are simply incompetent to fully deal with the unfolding situation. They realize it, but seem unwilling to let folks with competence to take over the management of relief operations and logistics management. The same bureaucrats and politicians are trying to spearhead such efforts, which simply is beyond their capacity and experience. Hence, the chaos and sense of inadequacy despite the excellent effort made by the security forces with the limited resources they have. This is an extraordinary situation and the government needs to think outside of the box in terms of solution. Traditional ways of doing business and governance is not going to be effective.
  2. The weaknesses related to institutional coordination is apparent after the earthquake. In the absence of effective local authorities/elected bodies, aid coordination and relief operations at the local level are in a disarray. The existing institutional coordination is fractured due to incompetent staff and over politicization. Senior government staff do not have prior experience to manage such situation. In fact, this is a long running problem as evidenced from the incapacity of government to fully spend capital budget each year. Addressing this will require hard reforms and the political leadership as well as the bureaucracy need to be positive as well as proactive. Right now decision making is too slow and operational management too weak.
  3. Coordination of immediate external assistance and its delivery are below expectation. Despite the large amount of assistance being offered by development partners and countries, the government is simply unable to fully utilize them. The Indian government has been the most responsive on this front and the Nepalese people owe them a lot for their generosity not only for financial resources, but also logistical assistance and management of the situation. Nepal can learn a lot from such swift decision making and logistical coordination. Proper and timely management is as equally important as the adequacy of such assistance.
  4. The rural villages are affected the most. Only a few active, young politicians have visited their constituency and coordinated relief operations. The political leadership seems ignorant to manage and coordinate within their own constituency. The rural folks in the affected areas need their support and presence till the last mile to cope with the aftermath of the natural disaster.
  5. A major rehabilitation of physical infrastructure and relief to people is needed pronto. Roads are damaged and building are demolished. Livelihood opportunities of the poorest folks are wiped out. Dreams are shattered. Centuries old heritage is destroyed in seconds. Traditional ways of rebuilding and rehabilitating physical infrastructure is not going to work. It will require newer and smarter ways of delivering such infrastructure. The political class, government and bureaucracy need to realize this and work accordingly, opening up space for more competent folks to take over efforts related on this front. It includes mobilizing the external assistance for this purpose as well. Many folks felt the absence of government immediately after the earthquake. They should not feel the same and lose hope during the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. They deserve much better and efficient political culture, government mechanism and bureaucracy.
  6. Growth outlook for FY2015 is going to be downgraded from the estimated 4.6% (ADO 2015) due to the disruption in economic activities. If the reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts are swift and efficient, then growth may recover in FY2016. This would require the next budget to squarely focus on this priority. Equally important will be to ensure that the planning, design and delivery of such physical infrastructure are orderly and well coordinate with a strict timeline of milestones and accountability. Adopting international best practices without much institutional and internal resistance is going to be helpful.
  7. This is the time for making a difference to the lives of the people, who deserve better governance, prosperity and political leadership. Proper planning and implementation of infrastructure projects (rehabilitation as well as new ones) will make a big difference in terms of generating new growth opportunities, employment and stability. This is not the time to get lost in the bureaucratic process and engage in political division of the available pie. Let competent and professionals (from within and outside of the government) take the lead role (given adequate incentives) in creating new and rehabilitating old physical infrastructure.
  8. Again, kudos to the security forces (Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and Nepal Police) for their relentless work. We should be proud of them and also think of how best we can increase resources for them and modernize their services in the future.  Also, thanks to the leading assistance efforts by the Indian government. We have to emerge stronger and rebuild the cities and villages in a sustainable way.