What is missing in Nepal

For a small Himalayan state, Nepal has gone through more than its share of tragedies in recent years.

The country has seen the political system crumbled and democratic institutions in tatters. Now, the earthquake has struck a huge blow in which the mountains have crumbled.

Nepal as a state has existed in various forms for more than 2,500 years and has been a tourist magnet because of the mountains and picturesque ancient temples dotted around the Kathmandu Valley.

It was very heartrending to see the scale of devastation in my birthplace. I have regarded my native country as the land of holy mountains. When I was growing up, I could see the majestic views from my bedroom window every morning. They were so uplifting. My father was a scholar of Sanskrit and was a universalist in his approach to life. These values were highly influential in the formative years of my life. Seeing the images of destruction after the earthquake made me very sad and nostalgic.

The temples that had stood the test of time have fallen, and the whole Kathmandu Valley looks like a war-torn city. The number of people who have perished has been going up by the day and people are still afraid of going into their homes because of a series of aftershocks. It is an apocalyptic scene all around in the streets of Kathmandu and in the hills of rural Nepal.

Nepal had been a monarchy until a decade ago. The foundation of the 240-year-old Shah dynasty was shaken to the core by the royal massacre in 2001, in which King Birendra and nine other members of the royal family were gunned down. The only surviving brother of the late king was Gyanendra, who ascended to the throne in the aftermath of the tragedy. But he made a series of blunders that resulted in the abolition of the monarchy itself in 2007.

Another force that was wrecking the country was the Maoists, who had been creating terror in the rural areas since 1996 and intensified their campaign in the aftermath of the royal massacre. The Maoist insurgency led to the death of 17,000 people and the disappearance of scores of others.

When the Maoists were eventually brought to mainstream politics through a comprehensive peace agreement, there was a ray of hope that this politically mismanaged and economically impoverished country would start to benefit from the peace dividend and witness economic growth and prosperity. But a bunch of power-hungry and corrupt politicians lacking in vision, foresight and wisdom filled the power vacuum created by the abolition of the monarchy.

The old values had crumbled due to the political upheavals, and new democratic values had not yet taken root in the society. The country elected a constituent assembly to write a new republican constitution for the country; but due to constant bickering among the politicians, driven mainly by petty interests, the assembly was dissolved without writing a new constitution.

After a period of meaningless political squabbles, the country finally elected a new constituent assembly, for the second time, to write a new constitution. But the new assembly too has failed thus far to write a new constitution.

There have been reports that the Kathmandu Valley and the mountains have moved by about 3 meters north due to the movement of the tectonic plates beneath the hills of Nepal. The task ahead of relief operations and the reconstruction of the severely damaged infrastructure is daunting.

The country, which had been ruined by political mismanagement, has been hit hard by a natural calamity. These are testing times for Nepal and Nepalese political leaders. Since the Nepalese are an immensely resilient people, there is no doubt that they will start to recover from this tragedy.

But the country needs more than the resilience of its population. It needs good governance and a responsible, transparent and noncorrupt government, led by people with a vision, foresight and wisdom. But this is what is missing in Nepal. It was because of this that the country was ill-prepared to deal with such a massive earthquake.

Of course, no one can predict natural disasters such as an earthquake, and no preparations can ever be adequate to deal with the aftermath of a disaster of such magnitude. But there were warnings that due to the fault lines running across the Nepal Himalayas, powerful earthquakes were likely to hit the country.

There were calls for some degree of preparedness for such an eventuality. But the chaos and lack of adequate preparedness that we have witnessed in the streets of Kathmandu and the rural areas in the aftermath of the earthquake is a testimony to the failure of the political elite in the country.

There is a tremendous goodwill toward Nepal on the part of the international community and especially both of its large neighbors, China and India, each of which has extended a generous helping hand. More than a dozen other countries -- an encouraging array including a traditional ally, Great Britain, and the United States -- have dispatched rescue and relief missions to Nepal and offered financial assistance too. This is very much welcome and would be very helpful in dealing with the immediate challenges facing the country.

However, the longer-term challenge of reconstruction is a more daunting one, and the quality of the political elite that runs the country does not offer much hope. Therefore, the international community should do its utmost to ensure that the financial assistance extended to Nepal is put to good use in a transparent manner and the process of reconstruction of the country is underpinned by good governance.

Surya P. Subedi is professor of international law at the University of Leeds, chief patron of an association of all people of Nepalese origin (NRNA) in the UK, and founding chairman of the Britain-Nepal Academic Council. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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