Karl Marx’s book, The Eastern Question, was first published in 1897. It is, to quote from the sub-title, “A Reprint of Letters Written 1853–1856 Dealing with the Events of the Crimean War.” Marx could be a dull, even tedious writer, and we know that a lot of his more memorable lines were written for him by his long-time friend, partner, and financial supporter, Friedrich Engels, starting with the famous opening words of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, which they co-authored, “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” Engels also had a formidable intellect to go with a gift for dramatic expression, which he put at Marx’s disposal. They made a formidable duo.
The contribution by Engels to books attributed only to Marx is well illustrated in the most interesting chapters of The Eastern Question. In the introduction, the editors of the compilation state, “[W]e have included certain military articles bearing very directly on the war. Most, if not all of these were written by Engels, or grew out of letters written to him by Marx.” These chapters cover England’s preparation for the war and some of the military engagements fought. In both areas, examples of monumental incompetence and petty back-stabbing abounded, and gave Marx and Engels a rich canvas on which to display their full range of expressive talent. The British Army had not fought a battle since Waterloo, nearly 40 years previously. Logistically and operationally, it was ill-prepared for the task it was asked to perform. Even the pride of the nation, the Royal Navy, performed poorly when deployed against Russian positions in the Baltic.
This is the wider context in which Marx wrote the few lines that are now about the only reference one ever finds to “the Eastern Question.” Since the quote has been much debated, and misunderstood, it is worth giving the narrower context in which the words were written. Writing about the way Admiral Sir Charles Napier, who had been removed from command for the poor performance of his fleet in the Baltic, was able to get letters published which showed that responsibility for the debacle should properly rest with Sir James Graham, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Marx wrote that this correspondence “had revealed to the English people that their navy was as rotten as their army. When the Crimean campaign stripped from the British Army its time-honoured reputation, the defenders of the ancient regime pleaded not guilty on the plausible ground that England had never pretended to be a first-rate military power. However, they will not dare to assert that Great Britain has laid no claim to be the first naval power of the world. Such is the redeeming feature of war; it puts a nation to the test. As exposure to the atmosphere reduces all mummies to instant dissolution, so war passes supreme judgement upon social organisations that have outlived their vitality.”
The much quoted and debated words are in the last two sentences. All can recoil in horror about war having redeeming features but there can be little debate about it putting armies, which are social organizations par excellence, to the test. Bombastic but ill-founded claims about preparation and the certainly of victory can be exposed as baseless very quickly, as can the reasons for failure, which usually stem from ossified thinking built on the comfort of previous victories.
By reasonable extension, the same thinking can be applied to great and sudden natural disasters putting a state to the test. How did the state mechanisms in Kathmandu measure up to coping with the destruction caused by the earthquake on April 25? The massive scale of the disaster would have tested even a well-functioning state. Even allowing for the fact that Nepal falls well short of that mark, an earthquake of the strength that hit had long been predicted. What preparedness that had been done, was shown to be seriously inadequate. Vitality, the state of being strong and active, was notably missing. Others have written at length on the general failings that emerged but few have addressed how civil-military relations stood up to the test.
We have an excellent source on how the army acted and interacted locally in one particular area but assessment is more difficult at the national level for various reasons. The media appear reluctant to say anything about the Nepal Army (NA) unless it can do so in the most laudatory terms. There is also the great gap between theory and practice when it comes to control of the army. Up until the downfall of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, the king kept the army under extremely tight control by running it direct from the palace through the agency of the military secretariat based there. Army headquarters was entirely subservient to it. With the downfall of the monarchy, this rigid palace control passed to army headquarters where it has effectively stayed, whatever the Interim Constitution might say. All political party leaders appear to be terrified of offending its leaders, with many journalists and media outlets in the same subservient state of mind. The outcome is, to put it mildly, that the army is strongly influential when it comes to promoting its interests and in asserting its views on how things should be run.
To see how this influence has worked in practice over the last six weeks I have had to rely on a few media reports which, perhaps unintentionally, pull back the curtains just a little to allow us to see into this normally secretive and protected world.
This article from eKantipur, “Mess due to absence of central mechanism,” from May 1, 2015, is an excellent place to start as it goes to the heart of civil-military relations in Nepal.
These sentences from the article could not be clearer or more disturbing: “The absence of a powerful central disaster response mechanism adversely impacted the coordination of rescue and relief operations . . . Led by a joint-secretary, a Disaster Management Department under the Home Ministry is mandated to respond to natural disasters at the central level. . . . The joint-secretary-led department has been unable to provide instructions to the Nepal Police, the Armed Police Force, and the Nepal Army due to issues of protocol.”
The question that springs out is, what issues of protocol? The statutory framework for disaster response in Nepal could not be clearer: it gives the leadership role to the Ministry of Home Affairs (under the Natural Calamity [Relief] Act, 2039 [1982 A.D.]). The mechanism through which the Home Ministry is meant to work is the CNCRC (the Central Natural Calamity Relief Committee). The Nepal Army, Nepal Police, National Planning Commission, volunteer organizations, and others, are members of the CNCRC. If there are issues of “protocol,” the Home Ministry has had over 30 years to resolve them. Since the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force work under the Home Minister, there cannot be a problem of “providing instructions” to them. By a process of elimination, the problem must therefore lie in “providing instructions” to the Nepal Army. So in responding to a disaster, who does the army take orders from if “issues of protocol” prevent the Home Minister from discharging his responsibilities under the law for coordinating rescue and relief? Quoting the role of the National Security Council hardly helps. It has the narrow mandate of advising the Council of Ministers on the mobilization, operation, and use of the Nepal Army, and seldom meets. In any case, the provision of “formally mobilising” the NA was surely not intended to cover the need to respond urgently to a natural disaster. A new national strategy on dealing with disasters was “approved” in 2009 after a long and expensive process of consultation, but appears never to have been implemented.
The lessons from “the mess” described in The Kathmandu Post article are that, however great the sensitivities, there is a need to align what the law and the constitution say about control of the army and, to put it bluntly, what is acceptable to the army in practice. Organizational structures built on separating responsibility and authority are doomed to fail. The indications are that the 1982 Act is soon to be replaced. A key test of the new act will be whether it addresses these issues head on and clarifies them once and for all. The 2009 approved strategy for dealing with disasters should be dusted off and reviewed to incorporate lessons from the ongoing tragedy into the new act.
The army chief, General Gaurav Rana, is a strong and influential man. It is worth examining his public statements carefully, starting with these words from his widely distributed address to the army on May 17:
The nation, residents of the nation and the national army—bearing the glorious history of the Nepali people who joined their hands together and, without any foreign assistance, were able to undertake such sacred tasks as building the nation during Nepal’s unification, reaching from Tista in the East to Kangra in the west, and during the great earthquake of CE 1934—remain capable and committed to face any challenges and to shoulder obligations like the national campaign for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
These few lines merit more detailed deconstruction than I can give in this article. The reference to conquering Sikkim and the more distant parts of what is now Uttarakhand as part of a campaign of “unification” is eye-catching to say the least. On a point of detail, it is not strictly accurate to say that the Nepali people received no foreign assistance in the aftermath of the 1934 earthquake. Given that a major plank of Rana foreign policy was to keep all foreigners out, there was no chance that Maharaja Juddha would allow direct help or even indirect help from foreign governments. He made that clear in a speech he gave on March 1, 1934, during which he announced an “earthquake victim relief organization” and an accompanying “fund.” Collections for the fund began immediately. The British, Indian, and Japanese governments wrote to offer donations as assistance for the earthquake victims, but he forcefully refused to accept their donations. He accepted only donations from foreign organizations and personal donations. Lakhs of funds were collected from these foreign organizations and from personal donations (Sri 3 Haruko Tathya Brittanta, Part 2, by Purushottam Shamsher JBR; published by Bidyarthi Pustak Bhandar, Bhotahiti, Kathmandu; 2062 [third edition]). In the English translation of his book The Great Earthquake in Nepal (1934), Major General Brahma Shumsher JBR lists these foreign donations in detail, most from India and England, and a few from Japan. The largest donation listed from England was from “Lt Col CT Dax British Envoy 500.00 Indian note.” The donations also included one of £10 from a small parish church in rural England.
In his address the army chief does make generous reference to the help which foreign armies gave but the suggestion that essentially “if necessary we can do this alone,” is striking. This attitude has manifested itself in the desire of some supporters of the army to praise its contribution by playing down the role of foreign help. The attitude reached its nadir in remarks attributed to K. P. Oli, the leader of UML in an eKantipur article on May 25, “Will take initiatives to raise cash relief to Rs 300,000: Oli.”
Oli also repeatedly praised the efforts of Nepal Army and other securities agencies during this national crisis.
Praising Nepal Army for their unceasing vitality in relief and rescue efforts for earthquake victims, leader Oli criticized the foreign countries for their show-off attitude in the name of assistance. “Foreign dogs ate foods worth Rs 100,000 daily and also digested equal amount of allowance,” said Oli, “But they did nothing more than sniffing some holes.”
Oli went on to say that the assistance provided by foreign countries was normal. “China might have pulled two bodies, US might have pulled four,” said Oli, “But most of the works were done by ourselves.”
It is shocking that a man who could be prime minister within a few weeks could use such derogatory and disparaging language when referring to the contribution of foreign armies and organizations. It was reasonable to expect it to be publicly condemned in the strongest terms, but I searched the Kathmandu media in vain to find even one further reference to it. Such silence by the media is deeply worrying. “Our government right or wrong” is disturbing enough but “our politicians right or wrong” is even more dangerous. Very sadly, this most astute of politicians would not have used such language without assessing that it would find some measure of resonance, even ingratiation, with people he was anxious to impress.
Enough has probably been said about the barring of the British Chinooks from entering Nepal, but in this context, of the use of foreign military resources, it is worth recording that this was a decision made entirely by the army and, although there are indications that at least one senior minister had doubts, none dare question what the army insisted on. There was little comment on the subject in the Kathmandu-based English language media but one tweet from senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit is worth repeating: “My conclusion on return of British Chinooks – inability of Nepal Army & Min of Foreign Affairs to play designated roles, plus sluggish PMO.” The clear message in that underlines what was said earlier. If an assertive army led by a strong chief does not play its designated role, there is not much chance of weak politicians or bureaucrats standing their ground to discharge their designated roles under the law.
Another eye-catching decision came to light on May 25 in this article, “Chinese rescuers return from Rasuwa as deadline expires.”
The short report is worth reading in full. It explains how a Chinese rescue team, deployed to reopen the heavily damaged new road between Rasuwa Garhi and Syabrubesi was asked to leave as “the Nepal government’s deadline” had expired before they could complete their task. The road was still not fully operational and sources said that the rescuers wanted to return home only after completing their task. Whether connected with this “deadline” decision or not, it is worth recording in this context that one week later, on June 1, China arbitrarily shut all border points between Nepal and Tibet saying that landslides on the Nepal side made travel too dangerous. The decision and its implications were extensively covered in the Indian media. See this article from Business Standard.
Since I know the area well, I followed the story closely. The destruction near Rasuwa Garhi was massive, and the extent of it has not yet been fully reported. On the Nepal side of the new bridge, a landslide buried the Immigration Office, Customs Office, and China-Kerung Business Association office, among other buildings. Photographs available on social media show that the Chinese Armed Police committed a lot of heavy earth-moving equipment to a task that was a considerable engineering challenge. Why not give them a few more days to finish the work the Nepal government had specifically invited them in to do—to open the road? Who laid down an arbitrary deadline? Why the unseemly haste? One reason could be the desire to show that Nepal and its army can do the job without outside help. Linked to that could be the motivation to clear the decks so that the NA would be put in the best position to show that it is fit and ready “to shoulder obligations like the national campaign for rehabilitation and reconstruction.” Did this desire also lie behind the premature declaration, that confused so many donors keen to help, that the relief phase was over at the same time as reports were emerging that many villages had yet to receive any help from anyone? The questions are necessarily rhetorical, but given the NA’s strongly declared interest, it is legitimate to at least raise them.
The determination to go it alone is coming through in the message, wittingly or unwittingly, which Nepal increasingly appears to want to give to the world about future foreign assistance: in essence, that the country has all the capacity needed to do what has to be done; all that is needed is money, and lots of it. Most countries do not hand over vast sums of cash on such a basis, and particularly not to countries so poorly placed in the global corruption index as Nepal. National pride can be a powerful driver, and must always be respected by outsiders, but surely it should be moderated by practical considerations and the imperative of doing what has to be done to alleviate distress and suffering with all speed? The full cost and scale of the rebuilding that will be necessary is just starting to emerge. The latest data reveals that 370,580 “infrastructures” have been damaged, including 3,552 schools. Add to that the need to repair roads, and to keep them open however many landslides occur during the monsoon, and the task of resettling permanently the large number of internally displaced people. A more open mind to receiving practical help from abroad, which would work in support and alongside Nepal’s own efforts, would seem to be more appropriate.
On reconstruction, the chief secretary has recently put forward proposals that reject calls to install an apolitical and technocrat-led high-powered reconstruction body in favor of setting up such a panel to be headed by the prime minister. An outline of what is proposed is given in this article, “PM-headed body proposed.”
No doubt the peculiarities of high level civil-military dynamics in Kathmandu will manifest themselves in the consultation now initiated. We must await events.
How civil-military relations worked at the local level in one particular location is the subject of a long article published in Kantipur on May 30, “Leader during the disaster, the great hero of Melamchi” available in Nepali here.
It is a graphic and utterly engaging article which at times reads like a dramatic screenplay except that it is a real life story of how Major Prem Hamal, the commander of Bhim Kali Company, acted with his officers and soldiers during the early rescue and relief stages following the earthquake. The sub heading, “From rescue to relief, a model Major,” correctly indicates that Major Hamal is the hero of the piece, and, for his energetic leadership and commendable initiative, deservedly so. Echoing back to The Eastern Question, he certainly did not fail to discharge what Sir James Graham in a letter to Admiral Sir Charles Napier memorably described as “the noblest of duties — which is the moral courage to do what you know to be right, at the risk of being accused of having done wrong.” On that point, Major Hamal’s judgment on when to follow what he describes as “an internal chain of command” cannot be faulted. The same can be said for his rebuke to Lokman Singh Karki, the head of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, when he was on his way “to the place where his own guru was living to provide relief supplies.”
It is a long article. Below is a translation of extended extracts from it which record, through a journalist, Major Hamal’s thoughts and insights about what motivated him, what failed and what worked, and his ideas for how things should be organized as the exercise of recovery and reconstruction moves forward. The words speak for themselves. They deserve to be widely read and critically reflected on.
I believe that the extracts retain enough of the sense of breathless action from the original and in a way which pays proper tribute to the bravery and general conduct of the officers and soldiers of Bhim Kali Company, and what they achieved under pressing and extreme circumstances. It is easy to say that this is what soldiers are trained and paid to do. It is, but that cannot be used to take away anything from how this particular company reacted to being put to this test. All too clearly, in contrast to what was happening in Kathmandu and with other agencies at local level, these officers and soldiers displayed vitality in abundance. There can be no doubt that their quick action saved many lives. In the absence of any mechanism previously agreed on how the distribution of aid and the response in general would be managed at the local level, Major Hamal was also correct to seize the initiative to get a fair system going. I have no visibility of how other NA units scattered round the country reacted in the initial stages of rescue and recovery. In such situations, as exemplified in this account, decisive, energetic, and brave leadership is all-important. Without that, things can be very different.
The extracts should come with a warning. Security forces are deployed locally and are therefore best placed to respond quickly, but, as this extract from a very recent article in The Kathmandu Post shows, “Remembering to forget,” just being in position and ready to act is not sufficient.
The security agencies—the Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and the Nepal Police—did arrive at the sites of disasters within hours. But they did so without any stock of critical information about the ‘zone’. They did not have household level topography maps; they had no idea about crucial entries, exits, or arteries; and they had no tools to handle fire or cut concrete and lift columns. After they reached the sites, they were seen asking about the location of the damage. Confused and poorly equipped, they appeared expendable to the community and thus, were pushed by locals to take extreme risks.
However praiseworthy the army’s actions at Melamchi, they should not blind us to the need, at every level, for making and rehearsing appropriate contingency plans so that more coordinated action can be initiated immediately. The state and civilian authorities cannot be allowed to opt out of their responsibilities. “Let’s just leave it to the army” is not acceptable as a policy. The absence of the chief district officer during the early critical days is deplorable and inexcusable. In the translated extracts reference is specifically made to “[w]hile internal disputes were heating up in the capital over whether the government or the army was in command after the earthquake, good will was evident in this section of Sindhupalchowk.” There is a need for caution in thinking that what worked at the microcosm of Melamchi can be scaled up to work nationally by simply allowing the army to lead on. For multiple reasons, it would not work, and would be wrong. The state has an obligation to protect and support its citizens in every way possible by utilizing all the agencies available to it.
A bigger warning to end. Deserved praise for the NA, particularly across social media, has contrasted its speedy response at the local level with the snail-like reactions of all other agencies of the state. Invariably hefty blows are landed on what are perceived to be out-of-touch, self-serving, and endlessly bickering political parties. From there it is but a small step to cry out for a strong man or a strong body to be given unlimited powers for some fixed period to oversee not just the reconstruction of infrastructure but a complete reform of the state that would speedily solve all the multiple ills that beset Nepal, politically, culturally and in every other way. Here be dragons! There is no possibility of wiping the slate clean and starting again as one might do with some failing business. However unpalatable it may sound at this juncture, the only way forward is the long slow slog of not just rebuilding infrastructure but reforming the basis on which Nepal functions as a state with inclusion at its heart; a country where all its citizens have equal rights, whatever their gender, caste, or ethnic origins, not just in the theory of a written constitution but in the reality of everyday life. To that can be added decent and safe houses, jobs for young people, breaking the feudal and extractive mindsets of political leaders and the monopolistic powers of the syndicates and cartels that hold the country back economically, and so much more. All of this is possible. Thanks to their own heroic struggles, the people of Nepal are now sovereign, and they should use this potent power and the new opportunities now open to refuse to go back to business as usual. Within such a context, civil-military relations will function as they should: the army will be proud to keep out of politics, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will play its designated role, and the Prime Minister’s Office will ooze vitality.
Translated extracts of the article published on eKantipur on May 30, 2015:
Leader during the disaster, the great hero of Melamchi
From rescue to relief, a model Major
Melamchi (Sindhupalchowk), May 30—Major Prem Hamal had been watching TV. The way the ground shook called to mind some terrible battle. He ran out from the barracks. It was Saturday, April 25. Because it was a holiday, apart from the soldiers who were on duty, mostly everyone was dressed casually. Adjoining the barracks were houses where nine troops lived along with their families. All of the houses around shook and fell like fallen playing cards. Dust began to rise up everywhere. Gas containers exploded and spilled fuel began to catch fire here and there. Not even a minute had passed since the great earthquake and the land and sky of Melamchi, this lovely bazaar in the hills, had already filled with thick smoke.
Private First Class Pushpa Basnet of Bhim Kali Company was on duty at the checkpost. And when right in front of him he saw the house where he lived begin to lean, with his family inside, it fell immediately.
Company Commander Hamal of Bhim Kali Company, Lieutenant Human Singh Kunwar and the troops on duty were successful in getting the entire family out of the fallen house alive, one by one. All of this work was successfully completed within five minutes. Witnesses say the house had fallen in such a way that no one would have survived if there had been a delay of even one minute more.
[. . .]
Hamal shouted out to the five hundred troops who had assembled immediately and were awaiting orders: “Everyone, no matter how you’re dressed, run toward the bazaar right away. You don’t need to carry a gun today. Put on your helmets and go, go quickly.”
In the blink of an eye, three teams had split off in three directions. The first team deployed down below, toward the bazaar. The second team was deployed to Sarkigaun, up above the barracks. The third team ran toward the upper section of the bazaar. Hamal himself was the leader of the third team. Right there from the road he was giving the message to the commanders that they should form support teams of 10–11 troops and divide into small groups for the rescue efforts.
[. . .]
Those who had survived were confused about whether they should flee or what they should do.
But how could anyone flee when their family had been buried right in front of them? The army came, shouting and urging them on, “Those who died are dead and gone.
Flee to an open area.” Only then did the locals begin to run.
A common principle for rescue teams says—don’t start rescue work under tall buildings while an earthquake is still shaking. Go only when the tremors have stopped.
A fundamental value of the army says one shouldn’t deviate from the “chain of command”—everything else is written down. One should follow orders without question.
On that day the army in Melamchi violated both “principles.”
“People who were pinned down inside were asking for help, saying ‘Save me, save me.’ And you could see some who had been completely buried, except for an arm,” says Hamal, providing a terrifying account of that day. “At a time like that how can you hold back your heart? So we went inside even while the earthquake was still shaking and began to get people out.”
[. . .]
There had been more than a hundred landslides, large and small, on the road between the village and the bazaar. The army worked to open up one track after another with help from local drivers and youth. They asked for an excavator to open the road.
And to monitor this a “dozer mobilization committee” was immediately formed under the leadership of local business people.
[. . .]
A helicopter was sent to remote areas that could not be reached by vehicle. Some political leaders were trying to have the helicopter sent according to their own priorities. The army did not accept this. They worked with locals to assess the damage. The helicopter went to areas that had greater numbers of injured. The locals themselves built a helipad. They boarded the army helicopter and then showed them the way.
[. . .]
Melamchi bazaar has a small group of Armed Police and Nepal Police. Bhim Kali Company immediately mobilized them as well to come along with them. Regional treasurer for the Nepali Congress Prakash Shrestha said, “The ones who died immediately, well, they were gone, but if there hadn’t been rescue operations—so far in this area we haven’t heard of anyone who was injured and then died afterwards. This area benefitted from the presence of the barracks.”
[. . .]
In the army, the chain of command is like this: the company looks to the brigade.
The brigade looks to the division. The division looks to headquarters. This principle is very strictly followed. But when disaster strikes, there’s no “chain of command” path to follow. And in addition, the earthquake disrupted most communications. In such a situation, there’s no alternative but to follow an internal chain of command.
[. . .]
Melamchi has Nepal’s first night-vision helipad. Two more helicopters can land inside the barracks simultaneously. The army immediately built a fourth helipad, in a field on the far side of the Indrawati River. Local youth helped the army to clear the area.
[. . .]
Hamal added, “Even though they thought they were almost certainly going to die, the boys took the risk; they weren’t the only ones deployed, even locals who survived were also immediately brought into the rescue work.”
[. . .]
Even up until the third day the army’s communication set wasn’t working properly.
And as for mobile phones, there was no hope at all. On the third day, on the evening of April 27, Hamal made contact with the brigade commander at Bhakundebesi in Kavre, Ashwin Kumar Thapa, by mobile. The phone kept cutting in and out.
Thapa managed to say, “Focus on humanitarian rescue work to the degree your judgment and manpower allow. It’s not the case that you must follow the chain of command. Given the condition of the phones.”
[. . .]
The army, police, and armed police transported the ill, even making use of villagers who had come to ask them to transport the injured. Residents of Melamchi themselves say that Hamal and Kunwar, who understood that the resources of the state were limited, were able to get extraordinary results by making use of even the locals.
On the evening of April 26, the parliamentarian for the area, Sher Bahadur Tamang, was found at the Melamchi Health Post. Lieutenant Kunwar recognized him right away. He took him with him to the barracks. He brought him to meet Major Hamal.
Tamang said that miraculous rescue work was taking place and thanked Hamal and Kunwar. Hamal said that the political parties would have to be proactive in relief and rehabilitation. While internal disputes were heating up in the capital over whether the government or the army was in command after the earthquake, good will was evident in this section of Sindhupalchowk. Tamang began to gather information from locals.
And based on this the army was deployed in rescue efforts. Speaking with Kantipur on Thursday, Congress treasurer Shrestha praised the active involvement of UML parliamentarian Tamang.
Constituency number three has 23 VDCs, including Melamchi, under the army’s command. They went from village to village transporting the injured. They had divided this work into two phases. After rescue work ended during the first phase, distribution of relief materials intensified. As far as the rescue work, this was absolutely work for the army. But as for relief, all of the parties and civil society had to have a role. In this as well, the ones with the greatest experience were the very same two, Hamal and Kunwar.
Hamal, who had been deployed to Sudan during its political crisis, had done research on the earthquake in Haiti. He had that as an example of how foreign assistance, in the name of aid, had deepened the political crisis there. As for Kunwar, he had been deployed to Haiti itself at that time. By the time the district natural disaster rescue committee sent DEO Dilnath Puri to Melamchi as its chief representative on the evening of April 30, the sixth day after the earthquake, the army had already managed to create three mechanisms composed of political parties and prominent locals.
The army called representatives from the local parties, including Congress, UML, and the UCPN-M; traders; teachers; journalists; and social activists to the barracks on April 27. Up until the disaster it had been natural for the army not to interact with the locals. Hamal got help from police officials.
At the gathering, Hamal presented the example of how disasters were dealt with in Haiti and Sudan. He said that this could be carried out in a way that is in accordance with the lives of local people, and told them that they would be the ones responsible for relief and rehabilitation. He went so far as to say that even though rescue operations were a task for the army, without social mobilization in the distribution of relief it would be pointless for the army to try to do it alone.
At that very meeting a regional-level disaster management committee was formed.
Up until that point it hadn’t been possible to coordinate with CDO Gyawali. Even though the army hadn’t been able to maintain the chain of command, Major Hamal had not given up the command of his judgment.
[. . .]
Though 1,438 had died and 2,954 had been injured, the army was able to save the lives of more than two hundred in this area.
[. . .]
Would this have been possible if they had sat waiting for an order from the chain of command? It wouldn’t have been—the answer is right there in the question itself.
Hamal reasons that during a disaster things are like this all over the world. “During a major disaster everything happens of its own accord. If we had tried to say we need an authorization letter from up above for us to be mobilized, everyone who was buried would have died,” he says. “Six hundred injured people would have died.”
[. . .]
Local journalist from Melamchi, Balaram Sapkota, says “Puri created a one-window system for relief. Records were kept of everything. Donors weren’t allowed to do just anything they liked. Whatever was received, they didn’t accept food supplies.”
He noted that the army’s coordination in this had been dependable. Talking with Kantipur in Chautara, the district headquarters, Puri turned this around and gave the praise to the army in Melamchi.
[. . .]
DEO Puri arrived and began coordinating with the CDO. VDC secretaries were summoned. On the morning of May 1, three committees were formed under leadership that included DEO Puri and parliamentarian Tamang. The first, an area disaster management committee under Hamal’s leadership. The second, an area-level monitoring committee under parliamentarian Tamang’s leadership. The third, a village-level relief collection and distribution committee under DEO Puri’s leadership.
The responsibilities which the army had been taking up to this point were now divided and taken up by local bodies.
[. . .]
Hamal began to hold a coordination meeting at the barracks every morning at 9:00.
[. . .]
There was an interesting issue in the relief distribution when the chief commissioner for the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Lokman Singh Karki, went to the place where his own guru was living to provide relief supplies.
When he said he had come to provide relief supplies as he liked, without coordinating with the local relief distribution committee, the civilians themselves were the ones who halted his relief efforts. The army had divided the relief supplies in Melamchi [because if] individuals go about distributing relief as they like, relief won’t even reach some places while in other places Haiti’s experience will be repeated.
[. . .]
CDO Gyawali visited the barracks on Thursday for the first time since the earthquake just as the Kantipur team arrived at the barracks. Major Hamal said, “Chief Commissioner Karki tried to distribute relief on his own. When we appealed to him that this should be distributed through the one-window policy, he didn’t agree.
I maintained the position that even if relief came from the president himself, there would be no going outside of the one-window system.” CDO Gyawali, who had been criticized for not being able to provide “delivery” immediately, said to Major Hamal, “We had heard about your work. We give you many, many thanks.”
[. . .]
UCPN-Maoist parliamentarian Rekha Sharma told Kantipur, “We haven’t seen the distribution of relief carried out in such an organized manner anywhere else. Others should learn from the army in Melamchi.” Representative of the local people UML parliamentarian Sher Bahadur Tamang added, “The army got extraordinary results in the rescue work by coordinating with locals; if this is how rescue teams were deployed everywhere, there wouldn’t be a need for foreign armies no matter how big the disaster.”
No irregularities have been found in the distribution of relief in Melamchi. Whatever is available, it’s being divided and shared while giving priority to the injured, Dalits, and the underprivileged. Substandard relief supplies have been sent back. It’s the army that has been monitoring all of this.
[. . .]
This article originally appeared in Nepali on eKantipur on May 30, 2015. It is available here.
I am most grateful to Mark Flummerfelt for his unstinting work to provide the translations which made this article possible.
Cover photo: A Nepal Army soldier walks through Basantapur on April 25, 2015 to assist in debris removal. Gyanu Adhikari/The Record