Corruption, Political Paralysis Bound to Hinder Nepal’s Recovery: Experts

By Rohit Wadhwaney
150501-NP-boy-620 A Nepalese boy tries to get food distributed by volunteers at a relief camp in Kathmandu, May 1, 2015.

They should have been welcomed with open arms.

Instead, Nepal’s border officials delayed Indian national Pravesh Sharma and his team of volunteer relief workers for hours, only allowing them into the earthquake-stricken country after they coughed up an “import tax” on relief materials they were bringing in.

“We got harassed for more than three hours. It was ridiculous,” Sharma, a native of Mirik in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, said of Thursday’s incident at the Indo-Nepalese frontier.

“Customs officials at the Kakarivitta border checkpoint wouldn’t let us through until we paid NPR 4,500 (U.S. $44) as tax on the tents, blankets and basic medical supplies we were carrying for distribution among quake victims.”

Yet all quake relief material coming in to Nepal has been tax exempted by its government, which is falling woefully short of the U.S. $415 million that the U.N. projects it will need over the next three months to supply quake victims with basic needs, such as tents, food, safe drinking water and toilets.

As of Thursday, Nepal had received U.S. $34.6 million in cash and U.S. $21.5 million in kind from foreign donors, totaling U.S. $56 million, Lisa Walmsley, humanitarian affairs officer at the U.N.’s Financial Tracking Service, told BenarNews via email.

She added that a further U.S. $54 million had been pledged.

“All relief goods donated to Nepal are welcome and are exempt from import tax,” Sagarmani Parajuli, joint secretary in Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs, told BenarNews by phone from Kathmandu.

Held hostage to politics

The indifference of Nepal’s border officials towards foreign relief workers didn’t surprise 29-year-old Pokhara resident Pradeep Chhetri.

“Personal gain over tragedy – that’s the story of our government,” he said.

Such indifference is part of a political culture in Nepal that has paralyzed its development and could retard post-disaster relief efforts and its recovery from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the Himalayan nation last Saturday, observers say.

Angry over the tardy pace of relief, thousands of Kathmandu residents clashed with riot police on Wednesday, according to AFP. There were also reports of quake survivors forcibly stopping trucks transporting relief material to remote areas and looting supplies.

“Obtaining foreign aid has never been a problem for Nepal; utilizing the aid flow to Nepal has been the problem,” George Varughese, the Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Nepal, told BenarNews in an email, referring to recent reports of aid misuse and aid absorption by the government.

He acknowledged that the Nepalese people’s faith in their government had “eroded steadily over the past several years.”

Following the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006 between Maoist guerillas and government forces that claimed nearly 13,000 lives, Nepal’s 238-year-old monarchy was formally abolished in 2008, leading to widespread celebrations across the country.

But the democratic setup that the people of Nepal had hoped for got lost in constant feuds between rival political factions, which continue to function without as much as a parliament or a constitution.

During the past decade Nepal has lurched “from one crisis to the next, the national interest held hostage to the quarrels of feuding political parties,” The Washington Post foreign affairs correspondent Ishaan Tharoor wrote on April 27.

“Successive legislatures elected to pen a new constitution have failed at their main task. Simmering tensions between the Maoists, the royalists and more-centrist political parties have led to coalition governments forming and swiftly collapsing,” Tharoor added.

The Asia Foundation’s Varughese agreed.

“The political situation has certainly caused a certain degree of inattention and lack of focus on the larger issues of national security,” he said. “Like most public policy matters, disaster preparedness and management have also been held hostage to the political situation centered on the development of a constitution.

“Having a constitution could have helped by getting past the distraction of the constant wrangling and horse-trading,” he added.

Seismic impact

The fact that Nepal has had seven prime ministers in eight years and has been unable to draft a constitution “has brought the country to its knees,” Nishchal N. Pandey, director of the Nepal’s Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS), told BenarNews from Boston, where he was attending a conference.

“People are frustrated and angry.”

Pandey described the earthquake as a “grave tragedy which has caused more damage than the 10-year Maoist insurgency in Nepal.”

The reconstruction, he said, would take a decade or longer, noting that the damage caused during the civil war itself had yet been repaired.

According to an initial estimate by IHS, a U.S.-based data analysis firm, reconstruction costs in Nepal, where the annual per capita income stands at U.S. $694, could go upwards of U.S. $5 billion.

That equals about a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product, which was U.S. $19.29 billion in 2013, according to figures from the World Bank.

Varughese, however, was more optimistic.

“Nepalis are stoic and resilient. I wouldn’t be surprised if they recover sooner than predicted,” he said.


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