Hope, prayer for a new, stronger Nepal
Ashok K Mehta
I was out for my late morning walk in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary when the killer quake epicentered around Lamjung near Pokhara in Nepal, convulsed our seventh-storey flat in Noida. I felt no tremor in the silence of a birdless, waterless lake-side environs as my beloved Nepal was ruinously shattered, obliterating living history and reducing to rubble, most of the Buddhist shrines and temples except the sanctum sanctorum, Pashupatinath in Kathmandu. Nepal TV channels revealed the scale and depth of the devastation, including the collapse of the 200-year old 300 feet tall oddity called Dharahara, the eternal landmark of the Kathmandu landscape. As in ancient times, Kathmandu still means Nepal; the periphery does not count. This has been reflected in the rescue and relief operations concentrated in and around Kathmandu at the cost of the rural areas where villages have been flattened. The focus of the Government, media and foreign aid is Kathmandu-centric, highlighting the urgency of federal governance in the unfinished new Constitution.
I first entered Nepal in 1959, walking from Raxaul to Kathmandu over the Thankot hump rather than drive along the new India-built Tribhuvan Rajpath, the only overland access to the then Himalayan Kingdom. The only other piece of tarmac in Kathmandu was 12 kilometres long, from the Palace to Singha Durbar, circling Rani Pokhari and Tundikhel where thousands of the estimated three million displaced persons are camping. Nepal was love at first sight. I discovered every nook and corner of Kathmandu and the countryside.
Every year since my first foray, except the two years I was on foreign assignments and one year after the economic blockade of 1989 when an advisory barred travel to Nepal, I have returned to be with my Gorkha Army buddies to share their joy and grief. That has made me ‘the most walked Indian in Nepal’. Former Foreign Minister of Nepal, Rishikesh Shah, gave me the title of ‘Nepal ko jamai saab’ (the son-in-law of Nepal) because of the cosseting I would get.
The less than 50,000 population in 1959 has shot up to more than two million today. The periphery has encroached, congesting the valley. Old Kathmandu was dwarfed by unplanned and unauthorised construction, rendering the road network a driver’s nightmare. While Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai failed in cobbling together a Constitution, he bulldozed the narrow streets to widen the paths which are proving helpful in moving the heavy engineering rescue equipment. Pre-occupied with Kathmandu, the tragedy around Lamjung seems forgotten.
Villages in Gorkha, Dhading and Kaski districts have been levelled. The Gorkha Durbar, the original high seat of the Shah dynasty which ruled over Kathmandu and Nepal for over four centuries, has caved in, ironically seven years after the monarchy was constitutionally dismantled. Barpak and Laprak, two mountain-top Ghale villages which I scaled in 1959, are known to have been wiped out. The legendary Victoria Cross winner from Second Five Gorkhas, Gaje Ghale, belonged to Barpak, though he rarely went there as his excessive physical well-being prevented him from making the stiff climb.
Last Saturday’s big jolt was followed by dozens of after-shocks travelling east and south from the epicentre, with Kathmandu bearing the brunt. Besides being grief-stricken, Nepalese are vulnerable to superstition, rumour and panic. Our adopted grand-daughter, Pratibha, is in Chitwan in the Terai, which is unaffected by the earthquake. Still she sounds shaken. She said: “Everyone is assembled outdoors and no one dares to go inside their homes as another big bang was expected at 11 that night.” She got the timing wrong, though; the 6.9 tremor came the next day around 1 pm. She has called every day predicting the timing of the after-shocks. Where is she getting the information from?
India has shown remarkable strategic prescience in turning the Himalayan tragedy into an opportunity in further cementing the post-monarchy relations with Nepal. It is advantage India. New Delhi has in Kathmandu the largest military mission anywhere, comprising Pension and Welfare wings, 26 District Soldier Boards across Nepal and 1,25,000 ex-servicemen. There is nowhere in Nepal where a ‘Bharat ko lahure’ or ‘bhupu’ (Indian soldier or ex-serviceman) will not be found. The military wing in Kathmandu is supplemented by elaborate missions in Pokhara and Dharan. Thirty-nine Gorkha battalions represent one of the largest regiments of the Indian Army. This collective constituency of goodwill, popularity and political influence is able to douse the frequently conjured-up anti-India sentiment.
The Nepal-India Army-to- Army connection is robust and the foundational base for launching the ongoing Operation Maitri (friendship). This is India’s most elaborate and comprehensive foreign disaster relief programme ever. The big lesson from Bhuj earthquake was to keep operational the airport and the lines of communication open. Unfortunately, there are glitches in this regard particularly at the Kathmandu airport. A large number of the Indian Air Force aircraft – C17 Globemaster, C130J, IL76 and AN32 fixed wing aircraft along with Mi17 helicopters – are involved. Special engineer detachments and National Disaster Response Force teams are in the vanguard of rescue and relief operations. Food, water, blankets, medical stores and field hospitals have been made available. What appears lacking is sufficiency of attention and resources for outlying areas. It is imperative that a multi-mission headquarter is established in Pokhara urgently because a bulk of the Gorkhas of the Indian Army come from this area.
More than an opportunity for India, it is a god-given chance for the sharply divided political class in Nepal to quickly settle their differences over the Constitution. While Nepalese Legislators will fan out into the 30 affected districts/constituencies the Government should consider and plan for early local elections which have not been held since 2001. Political instability has already held back the economy and with tourism likely on hold and constraints on foreign travel of Nepali workers, jobs and employment will have to be generated domestically from restoration and reconstruction works.
In this hour of Nepal’s national calamity is a chance to reconstruct a new Kathmandu, able and willing to withstand future shocks, as well as a new Nepal which federally connects the centre and the periphery to ensure a more balanced and equitable development. It is also India’s chance to reincarnate the special relationship with Nepal. That is the wish and prayer of a friend and well-wisher of Nepal.