Nepalis United: Aftermath of Earthquakes in Nepal

I originally wrote this for Republica.
Life devastated by April 25 great earthquake was crawling back to normalcy when, all of a sudden, another powerful earthquake (aftershock?) jolted the nation on May 12, on the 18th day after the first quake. It has terrorized people. However, unity among Nepalis has provided healing touch to the affected people.I had two different experiences in the last two deadly earthquakes: one in my living room and another at workplace, one escaping from the ground floor of three-storied building and another from the second floor of seven-storied building. Though both magnitude and duration of the second earthquake (6.8) was less compared to the first one (7.8), I felt more scared in the second.

First, I thought it was an aftershock and decided to stay inside. But the intensity got noticeably higher. Then I managed to escape from the tall building that had started to swing and later developed cracks as well.Thank God, both the powerful earthquakes occurred during daytime. Had they occurred during the night, or on workdays, human casualty, especially school and college students and structural damages would have been immense. Schools in the affected districts were scheduled to resume from May 17, as per government’s decision.

So far the death toll from May 12 quake with epicenter in Sunakhani of Dolakha has crossed 100, while the numbers of missing and injured are around 50 and 2,800 respectively. Likewise, the toll from the first quake with epicenter at Barpak in Gorkha is over 8,000 and twice many are injured, according to Nepal Police. Of 14 affected districts, Sindhupalchowk is the hardest hit. Over 3,000 people have been killed there.

All Nepalis, both in and out of the country, have stood by the victims in these difficult times. They have lent their helping hands with what they can. Although Nepalis had earlier been divided along political, gender, ethnicity and geographical lines, they are united now. Such a bonding was not possible in any other way.

Recently, I came across an educated person in a small gathering. He told me that if the same catastrophe had taken place in Tarai, people there would have become more frantic than the people in the hills. I differed because I am from Tarai. I believe disaster brings equal trouble to all the people, regardless of their regional, ethnic and geographical orientations.

People of Tarai have felt the pain of people of the hills. Individuals and political parties based in Tarai have collected relief supplies. They have rushed with trucks loaded with relief materials including rice and bamboo, and distributed them to affected people. This is an example of true bonding among Nepalis during the difficult hours. All we need now is mutual trust, and appreciate each other’s efforts.

We know that Nepalis from affected areas are in dire straits. Some might want to take advantage of this situation. For instance, it was discovered that scores of Bibles were being sent along with relief material to convert victims. Likewise, incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse from humanitarian aid workers are also considered likely, in exchange of relief support.

It is high time we Nepalis developed a strong bonding and extended all possible support to affected communities. This way we will not only be able to collect relief supplies but also to reach out to the needy.

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Feature Story: Hollywood actor Jaswant Shrestha raises fund for Nepali earthquake victims

I originally wrote this for Republica.
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KATHMANDU, May 7: Once as a young actor and director of some Nepali music videos and award-winning documentaries, Jaswant Dev Shrestha, whose passion has led him to work in the Hollywood industry, is now on a fundraising drive to help earthquake victims in Nepal.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake of April 25 and aftershocks has claimed around 8,000 lives and left tens of thousands others displaced in a dozen districts, which the government has declared as crisis zone in the aftermath of disaster.
To materialize his passion to work in Hollywood, Shrestha is now living in Los Angeles but his affection for his motherland and its people made him swarm in all his relief assistance to the quake victims.
From a country which is very far from Nepal, his efforts in fundraising, coordination and finally distribution to the affected people back home shows his incredible works, which is only possible by working round the clock.
Shrestha’s team in Nepal, which he mentions on his Facebook page as ‘#TeamJaswant’ has reached out with immediate relief materials to assist the victims from parts of all the districts affected by the earthquake.
Shrestha told Republica that his team from Pokhara, among the very few, distributed immediate relief materials to the earthquake victims in Laprak and Barpak of Gorkha District. The latter was the epicenter of the first earthquake. Thereafter, Indian Air Force helicopters had landed there with government relief assistance.
So far, he has managed to provide with immediate relief materials worth US$10,000 to the victims in various affected areas through his team, according to Shrestha.
“Jaswant is a real superhero to help the quake victims in need,” American Indian Sonia Bhalla writes on his Facebook page.
The lady working in Hollywood is one of them supporting his campaign.
When asked why he could not contribute his donation to the Prime Minister’s relief fund, Shrestha said, “Government procedure may delay immediate relief support to those in need, so we decided to rush to the remote parts of affected areas first.”He added that the government is doing wonderful jobs to respond to the victims. “Credits go to the Nepali security forces, especially Nepal Army, Nepal Police and foreign rescue teams and international communities,” he said. Shrestha’s volunteers in different states of America and back in Nepal are working day and night to help, collect and distribute relief supplies to the victims. He has dedicated teams for Kathmandu, Pokhara, Gorkha, Dhading, Kavrepalanchok and Nuwakot right now. Following the relief support, Jaswant also plans to spend the funds raised through his campaigns in rehabilitation.
“I’m very grateful to generous donors, volunteers and my teammates for encouraging the initiatives taken in the aftermath of the disasters,” he said. “Together, we can rebuild the nation and make a difference in the lives of victims.”
Jaswant has bagged the best actor in a leading role for his performance in his film The Treason. The film has also won two Audience awards in the New York Independent Film Festival and Blissfest. He has also appeared in a Facebook commercial, a few American TV series pilots and has also voiced Nepali and Indian characters in the Disney Animated movie The Planes.
To contribute to Jaswant’s appeal for humanitarian aid for earthquake victims in Nepal, visit the website of Earthquake Relief Fund for Nepal http://www.eqrfnepal.com.

Devastating Earthquake of April 25: Desperate times

I originally wrote this for Republica.

All of a sudden, all electronic gadgets in my room were automatically turned off Saturday noon. I had been working on my laptop at the time. At that inauspicious time when the clock showed 11:56, my bed started to shakeand the TV set almost jumped at me.

I rushed to the door and stood between the pillars from where I could see and hear other people in my neighborhood yelling and running helter-skelter. I shouted at them not to run but stay inside safely till things were settled. Nobody listened to me, and I was scared.The earthquake continued for two minutes, and nobody was inside. I had never experienced continuous tremors and it made me lose hope. I was at wit’s end.

I came out in the open after it stopped. Hundreds of people had already gathered outside. I saw parts of some buildings and boundary walls nearby collapse. I tried to contact my family, friends and colleagues, but in vain. I browsed the net,which was luckily available. I tweeted about the earthquake and also posted a status on Facebook.

Immediately after the first quake, no Nepali media covered the news, except Radio Nepal. But I could read Facebook posts and tweets about earthquake from different parts of the country. Though there were reports about damage and loss of properties and lives in Kathmandu alone, at first,nationwide reports soon followed.

Through social media, I could learn that Saturday’s devastating earthquake measured 7.9 in the Richter scale with its epicenter was in Gorkha district. Thereafter, international media was not only quick but also active in reporting the incident. Nepali media became active only after news spread through international media.

A series of aftershocks followed. According to National Seismological Centre, over a hundred tremors measuring more than four Richter scale were felt in different parts of the country at different times.

Human casualties and loss of properties caused by the devastating earthquake and its aftershocks across the country cannot be figured out now. Four days after the disaster, the Home Ministry has so far recorded over 5,000deaths,and twice the number of injured. Based on human casualties, Kathmandu valley and Sindhupalchowk district havebeen the hardest hit.

Likewise, Dharahara and Basantpur Durbar Square, among other historical and cultural heritages of Kathmandu valley, were turned into rubble after the earthquake.

Immediate rescue was limited to the capital for the first two days. Foreign countries, however, were quick to send in their rescue teams. With their help, rescue works started outside the capital after the third day.

Despite extreme challenges, Nepal Army has been coordinating search and rescue operations teams from India, Sri Lanka, China, Turkey, Netherlands, Poland, Germany, France, Israel, Malaysia, Britain and Japan in various affected areas. They have been doing a wonderful job to save people. Some victims were rescued alive from the rubble.

Had foreign rescue teams not reached the country in time, rescue would have hit a snag. Nepali authorities alone could not carry out operations. In fact Home Minister BamdevGautamhas accepted that the country was underprepared for such a massive disaster. Even locals from remote areas are complaining about delays in rescue and response. The rescue and relief distribution to the affected locals are underway.

Continuous tremors after the first quake haveinstilled fear in people that they hesitate to enter their homes even after the government has appealed them to do so. They have been compelled to live in tents in open spaces. Though some people in Kathmandu whose houses are not damaged have returned home starting yesterday, many are still spending sleepless nights in temporary camps. Rainfall has added to the woe of displaced locals.

Fearing aftershocks and consequences of food and water shortage, thousands of people have already fled the capital and returned to their villages; some are on the way; and others are planning their journey back home. Health and disaster experts warn of water-borne diseases and other infectious diseases in the absence of pure drinking water and hygienic food.

Following the recent disaster, governments and NGOs from other countries have intensified their help. Effective and timely distribution of relief materials in remote areas is a big concern.

Mismanagement in distributing donations from foreign governments has exposed certain people’s vested interests and lack of coordinated strategies. Amid such a situation, NGOs play a crucial role in distributing relief materials without bias.

It is high time for both aid agencies and government to strictly monitor use of funds and relief materials meant for earthquake victims. We should all pitch in for the benefit of those in need.

The author is associated with Republica

Challenges aplenty in Nepal’s urbanization

We (I & Ashok Dahal) wrote this based on the talk with KISHORE THAPA. 

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There are 191 municipalities in the country and if we assume all the inhabitants of municipal areas as part of urban population, 38 percent of our total population lives in urban centers. But all those living in municipalities are not urban population. Physical infrastructure does not make an area urban, the occupation and economic activities of people do. The majority of population in urban areas are engaged in non-agricultural sector; the exactly opposite is true for rural areas.

In our context, all municipal areas are not urban and all urban centers are not municipalities. Our urban centers are concentrated along east-west highway and north-south road sections. If we look at the map of our country almost 90 percent of our urban areas are in central Tarai and mid-hills.

Urbanization, historically, is a result of industrialization. Agriculture workers switched to industrial activities and gradually urbanization caught momentum around the world. But ours is a different story. Central government offices, regional and district headquarters and bodies of trade are all in urban centers. Trade with India and China also helped in development of urban cities. Migration to urban centers from rural areas in search of better education, jobs and health services further increased urban population.
Of late, remittance has driven urbanization but not in a sustainable way. Families of migrant youths are shifting to urban areas for better education. Designation of Kathmandu valley as capital city and economic and administrative headquarters also drew hordes of people to sprawling urban centers. Likewise, hordes of people have moved to Kathmandu after each political change. The political movement of 1990 and 2006 saw such migration. This happened due to centralized political system. As a result, today, the valley’s population has swelled to about 3.5 million.
Rapid and unplanned urbanization of the valley is not sustainable as there is lack of even basic infrastructure. Chaotic urbanization only brings anger and dissatisfaction to its people. Urban poverty is on rise and more health hazards are reported. To make matters worse, this type of city can challenge governance and also political system, again as seen in Kathmandu. Another cause of urbanization could be government’s failure to address its people’s aspirations.
First of all, Kathmandu-centric development must change. Political power and administrative authority of the capital city should be decentralized and harmonized with development. Essential services should go to nearby urban centers. Decentralization leads to urbanization not just of the capital city. For example, not all people in India go to New Dehli. Necessary services are equally available in other cities and towns in each province.
Our government seems to be focused on infrastructure development. Infrastructure is also necessary for managed urbanization because road, water supply and electricity, among other things, must be upgraded to turn rural cities into urban hubs. Government has started urban development projects at various cities. Biratnagar, Birjung, Butwal, Banepa, Dhulikhel and Panauti have been chosen for urban environment improvement program. Sewerage and drainage, soli-based management, water supply, sanitation and road improvements are the focus for development of these cities.
Another one is integrated urban development, which is implemented in Dharan, Janakpur, Bhairawa and Nepaljung. This project also focused on soli based management, water supply and sanitation, sewerage and drainage, among other things.
We have primary, secondary and tertiary cities. Those cities having more than 100,000 inhabitants could be taken as secondary cities and others with less people can be considered tertiary cities. In this cities, urban governance and development project (UGDP) has been launched. This project targets large municipalities which could not properly use budget. It helps such cities with governance and development, as well as enhancing their capacities for expenditure.
There are other greater development projects in some areas, but such projects do not tally with urban development planning. These are limited to political slogans like relocating the capital to Chitwan.
Urban development is investment, which is recovered by municipalities and other government agencies through various future taxes.
Our laws have certain criteria for urban development but people’s occupation in a particular area is a foundation of a city. There would be various things that characterize a city: trade, business, services, industry and many more.There are two different schools of thoughts on urbanization, either infrastructure should be prepared at first or it should be managed in the process of urbanization. But as an urban planner would say, urban city should be declared first and then infrastructure developed.
Except Kathmandu valley, other major cities are well managed. If you go to Pokhara, it is one of the most planned cities in the country. Thus planning and development are different things. Planning is preparing a sketch; development is investment for production of goods and services to generate employment for economic growth.Though a number of cities were planned and developed during Panchayat era, we failed to develop infrastructure, industry and business. As a result such cities failed to develop. For instance, Dipayal, despite being a regional center, failed to grow as a city.

Again, the concept of urban planning and infrastructure development does not determine people’s settlement and population. If it did, Kathmandu would not be so overcrowded. Behind this are political and economic reasons. The people, who were once dwellers of Birendranagar, are currently living in Kathmandu. Most importantly, growth and development of urban area is linked to economic activities; the more economic activities, the more the growth and development.
The global trend shows development of urban areas is based on industrialization. However, it is not the case in Nepal. Here, urban areas have not been developed as expected due to limited development of industrial sector. Where there are industries, families of workers migrate to these areas and get involved in different economic activities.
Urbanization based on industrialization is more sustainable than urbanization based on tertiary (service) sector. Let us compare a factory with a hotel. The factory can generate more employment opportunities than a hotel. The factory that generates more revenues requires involvement of many people for manufacturing, transportation, storage and marketing. Unlike industries, service sector is based on external factors. Changes in external factors affect service sector as well. This is evident in the case of tourism in Pokhara. Whenever there is protest by agitating groups, tourism comes to a grinding halt due to closure of hotels and transportation services. This leads to unemployment of those involved in tourism.

Land planning and urbanization
Land use planning is an important aspect of urbanization. This refers to specific use of land, according to specific requirement such as commercial area, housing, grocery, among others. For instance, the land designated for residential areas should not have industries; otherwise, it will negatively impact lives of local residents.
There are two types of land use planning: compatible and incompatible. Conversion of land is applicable to compatible land only, but the use of incompatible land is prohibited besides for the specified purpose. Unfortunately, urbanization based on land use planning has not been enforced in Nepali context. The land of Jorpati, which was earlier used for carpet industry, is being used for school these days. It is against the concept of land-use planning.
There is no proper mechanism to incorporate land use and monitor its execution in our context. Had such mechanism existed, urban areas should not only have been well-managed, but local government authorities especially municipalities could generate revenues as well.
This does not mean there are no plans and policies for managing urban areas. But they are seldom implemented.
Recently, the government has adopted a liberal policy in land price determination. It fixes the price of land as per prevailing costs.

Satellite cities
Of late, concept of satellite cities is often heard. The concept generally refers to smaller towns and cities around the primary city. For example, Dhulikhel or Banepa can be a satellite city of Kathmandu. Usually, satellite cities are built around primary city either by combining two cities or building a new city in between. In case of Delhi, Noida and Gudgaun are satellite cities.
Without specific federal model, urban planning in federal structure cannot be predicted. Though the government and political parties have been discussing federalism for the last decade, unfortunately, they have not been able to come up with proper federal framework through consensus. Urban experts cannot help in this.
Urban areas are usually determined, not only based on economic factors, but accessibility because not only have to visit such areas for economic purposes but also for administrative works.
Thapa is former secretary, Ministry of Urban Development