Disturbing Questions in the Wake of Devastating Quake

Eighty years after the devastating Bihar-Nepal earthquake of 1934, Nepal and adjoining areas of India and Bangladesh have once again been jolted by a terrible earthquake. The earthquake and its continuing aftershocks have left a massive trail of death and destruction. The death toll in Nepal has since been increasing every hour by hundreds and the eventual toll could be anybody's guess. The staggering statistics of loss of lives and major injuries only give us a very partial idea of the actual scale of devastation that Nepal has suffered in terms of life and livelihood as well as habitation and heritage. A lot in Nepal will virtually have to be rebuilt from scratch.

A tragedy of such colossal proportions confronts us with massive challenges of rescue, relief and rehabilitation. And reports coming from Nepal indicate that defying enormous obstacles on the ground search and rescue teams from several countries are working round the clock. The kind of humanitarian aid and assistance needed that Nepal needs at this juncture can only be ensured if the international community and especially India and other neighbouring countries respond adequately. The Indian government and the Indian people must play a big role at this juncture not only in terms of immediate rescue and relief efforts but equally in meeting the subsequent challenge of reconstruction and rehabilitation. And then again, no less important than the quantum of aid is the issue of effective manpower and operational logistics to deliver things on the ground.

This brings us to the question of our preparedness to manage disasters, especially ones that have no respect for borders and affect vast swathes of land across countries. Quake and floods in Kashmir and across the Indo-Pak border, cyclones in Bangladesh and eastern India, tsunami in Sri Lanka and south India or earthquakes, landslides and avalanches in the Himalayan region of Nepal, India and China - in recent years we have experienced major disasters in various parts of the South Asian neighbourhood. A shared South Asian disaster management force and mechanism can probably provide the best logistical means to respond to a cross-border disaster of such magnitude as Nepal and India are facing now.

Ironically, a few days before the quake, Kathmandu had hosted an international conference of seismologists and social scientists to discuss the threat of earthquakes in the Himalayan region. Kathmandu valley is widely recognised as one of the most earthquake prone regions in the world. The accumulated tectonic tension in the region is leading to a major build-up towards repeated earthquakes. According to some experts even after the April 25 earthquake, more than 95% of the accumulated tension is still seeking outlets to be released and it could mean a series of potential earthquakes of similar or even greater magnitude. Four major earthquakes have hit the region in the last hundred years and heightened tectonic activity does indeed make the region a seismological hot spot with rather apocalyptical projections for the future.

The challenge is to adapt to the threat. Seismologists keep telling us that we now have reliable quake resistant engineering expertise to withstand earthquakes, and the real killer is not earthquake but buildings built in violation of appropriate construction designs and norms. Weakness and flaws of urban planning, execution and enforcement coupled with paucity or sheer absence of effective disaster management machinery and response make it a lethal combination for common people in quake prone areas. Seismologists point out that while an earthquake of similar magnitude could possibly kill only 10 persons in a million in the US, it has claimed thousands of lives in Nepal and could result in much higher losses in more densely populated areas of India or Pakistan. Clearly, reckless and unplanned construction and disproportionate concentrations of population in unsuitable geological conditions make South Asia all the more vulnerable.

As we extend all our support and cooperation to the quake hit people of Nepal and India in coping with the loss and in the battle for rebuilding their lives, we must insist that governments in South Asia bring their urban development and infrastructure plans strictly in correspondence with the latest quake resistant norms and ideas and create a shared disaster management mechanism for the South Asian region.

Nepal's Pain Becomes Fodder for Indian Media's Jingoism

Nepal is slowly limping to recovery from the earthquake that has claimed over 10,000 lives and destroyed vast areas of that country. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, India’s prompt rescue and relief efforts were warmly appreciated by Nepal’s people. But the appreciation has turned into hurt and anger, as India’s relief efforts were turned into an insensitive, self-congratulatory spectacle on Indian media and social media.

Nepal’s people took to social to express their anger, with over 100,000 tweets using the #GoHomeIndianMedia hashtag. While it was the Indian media that was the direct target of Nepalese resentment, the Indian Government too could not remain insulated from the anger.

One trigger for the anger was the crass, sensational, and insensitive nature of the coverage. Nepal’s people expressed outrage at Indian journalists asking survivors ‘how they felt’ at the loss of loved ones. Another issue was the fact that some Indian army rescue helicopters were arriving in remote areas, with precious space occupied by Indian media persons rather than relief materials. Also, the Indian media was barely mentioning the rescue efforts of Nepal’s own personnel and common people.

But above all, what was apparent that much of the Indian media was turning their coverage of the disaster and the relief efforts into a giant, over-the-top PR exercise for the Indian Government and Indian Prime Minister. From #ThankYouPM hashtags for Modi on social media, to some channels using Modi’s image with self-aggrandising captions in the foreground while relegating images of devastated Nepal to the background, there were many such instances that turned a story about Nepal’s pain, into one about India’s PM. Modi himself added to this impression with his tweet praising the Indian media.

On social media and media, the Indian relief effort had also become a pretext to grind various political axes. Right-wingers on social media were openly crowing praise for Modi and the RSS, implying that previous Governments and other political forces had never launched relief on a comparable scale. They were also openly indulging in competitive comparisons of the Modi Government’s efforts with those of Pakistan, China and other countries.

This is not the first time that disaster relief coverage was used by the Indian media and political parties as a pretext for jingoism and political propaganda. Following the Uttarakhand floods, the BJP and sections of the media had peddled exaggerated claims about the rescue and relief efforts by Modi, then the Gujarat Chief Minister. With Lok Sabha elections then in the offing, the Uttarakhand disaster was used to try and cast Modi in the role of a super-hero.

Following the Kashmir floods, sections of the media had tried to use the Army’s rescue and relief efforts as an occasion to justify the Army presence in Kashmir and the AFSPA. When Kashmiris expressed anger against this propaganda (much as Nepalese people are now doing), they were branded as ungrateful and anti-national.

Nepal’s people have warned the Indian Prime Minister as well as Indian media not to forget or undermine Nepal’s sovereignty and self-respect. In fact, the competition among Indian media and political groups to claim credit for aid to Nepal, has made India lose respect internationally. Like Modi’s attempt to use the Obama visit to boost his domestic political image, the attempt to turn Indian aid to Nepal into a political scoring point for the Modi Government has backfired. Thanks to jingoistic propagandists on media and social media, India’s gestures of extending relief to Nepal have come across as over-bearing, self-aggrandising and self-serving rather than gracious and humble.

As Nepal rebuilds itself with remarkable courage in the face of unimaginable devastation, its people continue to hope for solidarity and support from the Indian people. We must do all we can to help the people of Nepal, and resist every attempt by the Indian media or political forces to exploit Nepal’s pain as fodder for Indian politics and propaganda.

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