Hell in the hinterlands

In lack of data on the affected, relief teams struggle to reach those in urgent need. The government must mobilise its resources to collect information

Subhadra Budha was standing under the eaves of a stone building. Her eyes would not stop welling up. The building, which used to provide karate lessons to youths in Bhotechaur, Sindhupalchok, is one of the few in Nibu Village still standing after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook the nation last Saturday. From where Budha stood, the devastation around her lay like the landscape in a nightmare difficult to comprehend. The houses made of stones and earth, typical in the rural hills, had been flattened; if not, they were mangled beyond recognition. As the rain fell and the villagers waited on the road for the relief items that a privately organised team from Kathmandu was unloading on to the deck of the building, Budha let the tears fall. She survived the quake and so did her family members, but her house, two buffaloes and a cow did not. The story repeated itself in almost every household in that village. She knew that it was chance, and mere chance, that had saved the villagers that noon.

What Budha’s crying reflected now was the chaos in the aftermath of the earthquake, her inability to comprehend the scale of the jolt that could have wiped them all out had they been inside their homes. On Wednesday, four days had passed since the main shock, but not a single government team was in sight to assess the damage. Relief material seemed to be finally trickling in, but the lack of coordination in the face of lack of data was apparent. Who were these relief workers? What were they bringing? How were they going to distribute the packages? Will my family get a tent or a sack of rice? What if they miss registering my name? Is there enough for everyone? Does it help if I stand in the front of the line? If my family gets left out today, will we get aid tomorrow? All these questions agitated the villagers waiting on a terrace down on the road. The frustration building up inside did not turn violent, but it would not have been surprising if it had. The confusion the earthquake has created is massive.

“We haven’t had power since the earthquake. We do not get papers here either. So the villagers have no idea what’s going on. It’s all based on hearsay,” said Bikash Tamang, a 19-year-old who worked as a waiter in a momo restaurant in Mahabouddha, Kathmandu. He was in front of Bir Hospital when the earthquake hit. After spending nights under a tent in Tundikhel, he had come to Nibu that morning, only to find it isolated and cut off from the local and central governments. “We don’t know exactly how many of us in this village are dead. Some say two, some say three. We do know that almost all of us lost our cattle, but have no idea about how many of the buffaloes, goats and cows perished,” said Tamang.

This lack of data on the damaged structures and the dead means that relief workers, especially those privately organised out of goodwill, once they arrive, will face challenges in distributing material to those in most need. Most privately organised relief teams never come with tents and food items enough for a whole village or a Village Development Committee (VDC) or an entire district. The team I was with—comprising volunteers from the association of Budhanilkantha alumni, Snow Leopard Trek Limited and the Tibetan Muslim Community—that travelled to Nibu village on Wednesday had around 80 sacks of rice, nine tarpaulin sheets, six tents and seven quilts, among others—not enough for the roughly 200 households affected by the earthquake in the village. And then there is always an uncertainty hanging over whether the teams that come today will return again the next day with more, to make sure that those who did not get help today will receive some later.

With limited supply of aid material, relief teams then have to determine those most in need and distribute aid accordingly. But there is no list to refer to. People do not even know where they should go to report casualties. Some say the police post, but the small concrete building perched on the hilltop in Bhotechaur has itself suffered damages and only three policemen remain there, with others summoned to the district headquarters, Chautara, to help with the rescue and relief efforts. Others say deaths and damages should be reported to the VDC secretary. But the building of the Bhotechaur VDC had been attacked during the conflict and has not been rebuilt yet, and on the day we were there, the VDC secretary was nowhere to be seen.

Since the communication channel between the government and the villagers has been completely broken, it is up to the relief teams to decide where to distribute, and then up to the local leaders to ascertain who has suffered the most. The problem with this, however, is that everyone is affected and everyone feels deserving of the aid that comes their way. But the list that the local leaders come up with right there and then will include some and exclude others, especially when there is not enough material such as tents and tarpaulin sheets for everyone. Disagreements are bound to ensue, creating further confusion and frustration. “It’s hard to satisfy everyone. Not everyone trusts our judgment,” said Arun Sapkota, a young man who was one of the local leaders in charge of relief distribution that Wednesday.

The village dynamics do not help with the smooth distribution of relief material either. The list created on Wednesday had names of the heads of families, but in villages, most people do not know each other by name, but by their relation to one another—mathlaghare kaka, tallaghare bhanja; or by their profession—dandako lahure, pucharko driver; or by some other moniker— laati, kale. So, whenever the names on the list were called out, confusion rippled through the crowd. For instance, a local leader on Wednesday could not believe that there was another Harka Bahadur in the village and was worried that one man had been listed twice. “Who is this Harka Bahadur? Is that you? If it’s not you, who else is named Harka Bahadur in this village?” he kept asking when the name appeared on the list. The other Harka Bahadur, also a leader for that day, kept denying that it was him and had to insist that there was a driver also named Harka Bahadur and that his family member was there to receive rice.

Sindhupalchok suffered the most during the earthquake on Saturday. The death toll there has already surpassed that in Kathmandu, with more than 2,000 confirmed dead. There is not a village that has not been affected, but the government has failed to calculate the number of people in urgent need.

The damage list created by the National Emergency Operation Centre reads ‘0’ (not even ‘unknown’) in the slot for the number of houses destroyed in Sindhupalchok. As the country now moves from search and rescue efforts to providing immediate relief, it must mobilise all the resources it has to collect data on the affected. Without this basic information, relief work will only leave many disgruntled, angry and ready to resort to hooliganism.

Published on: 2015-05-02, The Kathmandu Post