A large body of disaster literature has amply shown that vulnerability is closely linked to race, class, and ethnic inequalities. Unsurprisingly, more than 60 percent of the earthquake victims in Nepal were from marginalized ethnic groups. Although obvious to anyone traveling in the affected districts, this observation was not made openly in the days following the earthquake. A different narrative had taken hold at the time. For instance, at a meeting of former bureaucrats held soon after the earthquake, one speaker stressed that Nepalis were helping their fellow citizens “out of a feeling of humanity, irrespective of caste or ethnicity.” This, he said, had discredited those who claim that our society suffers from caste and ethnic problems. The high-caste bureaucrat saw no irony in the fact that he was making that statement in a room full of former bureaucrats, all of whom were also high-caste.
Many others would voice similar sentiments in the coming weeks. “The crisis has united us all”; “The youth have shown we are first and foremost Nepalis”; “A new civil society is in the making.” There was no dearth of commentaries applauding the “resilience” of the Nepali people. For some time, the chaos bred heady optimism among the least affected. While the relief initiatives of Kathmandu’s young volunteers were necessary and commendable, the self-congratulatory optimism also allowed many to preempt questions about the deeper causes of the tragedy. The disaster was seen as entirely natural and inevitable, shorn of its social and political meaning.
It was only after the initial excitement subsided that we started pointing out some fundamental features of the catastrophe. Kathmandu had not been “flattened” as some reports in the international media suggested. Districts outside the capital had suffered much more. Both in and outside Kathmandu, the hardest hit were the poor who could not afford strong houses. More women died than men. Dalits were among the worst hit in areas with mixed populations. An overwhelming majority of the victims belonged to the Tamang community.
A week after the earthquake, we raised some funds from friends and family and made our first relief trip to Sindhupalchowk, the district that suffered massive destruction and the highest number of casualties. On arriving at our destination in Badegaun VDC, we realized that the population in the village was predominantly Bahun and Chhetri. A few Dalits lived in a separate settlement. All of the 165 houses in the village had been destroyed. At least 19 people had died, mostly women (two of whom were pregnant) and children. There were parents who had lost their children, a man who had lost his wife who was almost due to give birth, and others whose elderly parents were killed. Families huddled under the open sky next to their collapsed houses. Their livestock had been buried and there was a stench of death in the air. The body of a ten-year-old Dalit girl had yet to be recovered, and her father’s hands were bruised from digging through rubble for days.
Naturally, in the face of such indiscriminate suffering, the last thing on our minds was the caste or ethnicity of the victims. It did not occur to us that the chain of contacts that had led us to the village, as well as the locals who were coordinating the distribution were all high-caste men—educated and articulate men dedicated to their community. It was thanks to them that the distribution went smoothly. No tensions arose; everyone seemed satisfied. Relieved, we were on our way back when we ran into some angry locals from a village further up. They were all Tamang. They had seen our supply trucks and were hoping to get some of the rations. “No one has brought us anything,” they complained. “These Bahuns are clever and know how to get relief. We heard the government is sending them food supplies. If this goes on, we’ll have no option but to seize the supplies.”
After we returned to Kathmandu, we received a number of calls requesting support for Sindhupalchowk, each from a high-caste person. This was somewhat disconcerting. More than 3,500 people had lost their lives in that district; nearly half of them belonged to the Tamang community. How could we ensure that our support reached the most vulnerable communities—those who lived higher up in the hills, far from the road and the gaze of media, without access to information, support networks, or connections in Kathmandu? We had to be more rigorous in our search, less willing to take things at face value.
We spent the following weeks trying to reach such communities. Dalits of Rakathum, Ramechhap, who were hesitant to come down to the distribution point because crossing the river on a rafting boat would cost them 50 rupees each way; landless Dalits of Kafalsanghara, Nuwakot, who were already struggling for daily survival and burdened with loans taken from high-caste families when the quake destroyed their huts; Majhi families of Sukhajot, Ramechhap, whose traditional livelihood, fishing, is increasingly threatened by anti-poor conservation policies; Tamang families of Thuman and Chilime VDCs in Rasuwa, who would walk for several hours in the scorching sun to collect rations that would barely last them two weeks; Tamang people of Haku, Rasuwa, whose entire village was swept away by a landslide, and who were now being shunted from one temporary camp to another because private landowners could only allow them on their land for so long. In short, people whose vulnerability to disaster is inextricably linked to decades of exclusion. For these communities, “rebuilding” and “recovery” would demand solutions far bigger than a tiny cash grant and a few corrugated tin sheets. But even this paltry compensation has yet to reach many.
“Relief worth millions of rupees is sitting at Kathmandu airport while our people are hungry, homeless and sick,” said Prem Tamang, a former Constituent Assembly (CA) member. “But we can’t bring those supplies to our villages unless Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam is sufficiently appeased.” A small, soft-spoken young man with incredible drive and an unfaltering commitment to his people, Prem had been leading relief efforts in the most hard-to-reach areas of his home district, Rasuwa. The government’s inept response to the disaster did not surprise him. After all, most of the authorities coordinating rescue and relief could not even understand the accent of the local people, let alone their problems.
Fourteen out of the eighteen VDCs in Rasuwa are principally inhabited by the Tamang, three have mixed populations, and in one, the population is predominantly Gurung. But the current CA member representing Rasuwa, the newly appointed chief district officer, and the outgoing district officer are all Bahun men.
Things have always been this way. Even if a Tamang reaches a decision-making post against all odds, he or she has to struggle to fit in a system dominated by high-caste men. Kulman Ghising, former managing director of Chilime Hydropower Company, is one example. The 22 megawatt Chilime hydropower project supplies electricity to the national grid and is based in Chilime VDC, Rasuwa. One of the few Tamangs to reach the top position in the company, Kulman had played a key role in ensuring that the local community had 10 percent of the shares in the hydropower project. During his tenure he had created employment opportunities for the locals and initiated development activities in the project areas. This made him a respected figure among the locals of Rasuwa. But immediately after the second CA election in November 2013, the newly elected CA member from Rasuwa and other Bahun political leaders reportedly lobbied the energy minister and home minister to remove Kulman from the post. He was sacked soon after, in July 2014. Locals of Rasuwa, members of the Nepal Electricity Authority’s trade union, and members of different political parties launched strong protests demanding Kulman’s reinstatement, but in vain. The government cited the end of his tenure as a reason for his dismissal. But Prem and other locals assert that he was removed to serve the vested interests of the commission agents and powerful shareholders, who had long felt threatened by his sympathetic relationship with the indigenous locals of Rasuwa.
“Why do you think the Tamang are so poor despite living in an area so rich in natural resources?” Prem asked. “Development mostly comes to us in the form of extraction. The Chilime hydro project makes a profit of hundreds of millions of rupees each year. This year the project made a profit of 850 million rupees, but less than 3 percent of that amount was allocated for the district. The profit is made at the cost of local resources and environment. So how do you justify the local community receiving such a negligible fraction?”
Another example he cited was Langtang National Park, which was declared a protected area in the 1970s by the former royal elite. Indigenous locals within the park area have suffered since the park was established, especially during the first two decades. Their daily livelihood practices—collecting forest resources, grazing, and swidden agriculture—were criminalized in the name of conservation. Wild animals from the park destroyed their crops and threatened their survival, but they could neither hunt the animals nor seek redress from park authorities. They were routinely harassed, arrested, and fined. Despite the creation of a buffer zone in 1998, the heavily militarized park area continues to arouse resentment among locals. Forest use is still severely restricted. Local participation in park management amounts to tokenism. And the unequal power relations between the park authorities and the indigenous population remain unchanged.
Excluded and impoverished for too long, the Tamang cannot even benefit from the developments now taking place around them. For instance, the Rasuwagadhi transit route opened in 2014 to boost cross border trade between Nepal and China. Locals of Rasuwa can even obtain a special permit to travel across the Tibetan border to Kyirong Bazaar. But it is outsiders, not the indigenous Tamang, who have gained the most from this opening. Most of the Tamang lack the social and economic means to start a profitable business. Many serve as porters for high-caste and Newar businessmen, carrying their merchandise for wages.
The development ventures in Rasuwa have thus failed to improve the lives of the indigenous population in any significant way. Because of poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to state institutions, the Tamang cannot compete with outsiders in benefiting from these “enclave developments,” to use anthropologist Ben Campbell’s phrase. As Campbell has shown, the steady institutional growth of Dhunche, the district capital, has in many ways further marginalized Tamang villagers, subjecting their small-scale enterprises to new regulations and criminalizing their traditional livelihood practices, such as making homebrew alcohol, cutting timber and firewood, and slaughtering female buffaloes. In his book Living Between Juniper and Palm, Campbell writes: “If any unity of reason is to be found in these diverse developments it is perhaps most evident in the multiple roles of the military at the periphery.” The police and army check posts along the Pasang Lhamu Highway, the army base at Dhunche, army patrol squads in Langtang National Park, the army base at Rasuwagadhi—the Nepali state may be apathetic to the needs of indigenous people but it can deploy enough armed troops to make them behave.
“That is precisely why we have been demanding federalism that recognizes our identity,” said Prem. While federalism may not be a panacea for the embedded structural inequalities, he argues that only a federal state structure will loosen Kathmandu’s stranglehold on the rest of the country. If Rasuwa were part of a federal province with a degree of autonomy, the indigenous population would have much stronger chances of using the resources in their territory—land, river and forests—to develop their villages, create jobs, and boost the local economy. Their children could get an education that respects their language and culture rather than one that instills shame and feelings of inadequacy. The Tamang could join local government bodies and get involved in making decisions that vitally affect their lives. They would not have to wait for Kathmandu’s approval to build even a short stretch of road in their village. And in times of disaster, relief and reconstruction aid could be sent directly to the affected province instead of being stuck or stolen in Kathmandu.
Sadly, there is no sign that this vision will become reality anytime soon. Quite the contrary. The earthquake presented a perfect opportunity for the ruling parties to assert their will over citizens. Using the disaster as an excuse, they bulldozed ahead with a “fast-tracked” constitution that reverses even the few gains made over the last two decades. The federal structure approved by the CA fails to address demands for identity recognition and autonomous governance in any meaningful way. The party leaders have decided to demarcate provincial boundaries in ways that further entrench the hegemony of high-caste groups. Protests have erupted across the Terai and are spreading to other areas. Clashes between the protesters and the police have claimed more than forty lives. While some are celebrating the new constitution, others are agitating in the streets and mourning their dead. Any hopes that a new and just society might be built on the ruins of this historic disaster lie shattered for now.
Cover photo: Houses in Gatlang village before the April 2015 earthquake. 2013. Stephen Bugno/Flickr. Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.