A fallen Chinese passport, a bride in wedding finery

Had our flight not been late, we would have been on the road and perhaps towards a bigger disaster had it struck then.

New Delhi | Updated: April 27, 2015 5:13 am
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By: Shyam Saran

It is when the grand forces of nature stir that humankind is reminded of its own inconsequentiality and utter vulnerability. The massive earthquake which has ravaged neighbouring Nepal will take years to recover from and will only add to the country’s woes. Quite apart from the monumental effort which will be required to help the people of Nepal rebuild their shattered lives, livelihoods will be affected by the disruption of tourism, a mainstay of Nepal’s economy, and by the breakdown of the transport and communication network, particularly in the mountainous region to the north. The series of landslides and avalanches set off by the earthquake have cut off a large number of villages and settlements and relief efforts are hampered as a result. There is a big loss also to Nepal’s rich cultural heritage.

The ancient capitals of Patan and Bhaktapur have been severely damaged with several heritage buildings and temples now a pile of rubble.

A friend and I had taken the morning flight to Kathmandu on April 25 but it was two hours late. After retrieving our baggage around noon, we were about to leave the airport building for our drive into the mountains to the north and west to begin our trek in the Langtang Valley. Just then a massive earthquake hit us with its full and frightening force. There was panic all around as passengers and  tourists from several countries, airline staff and Nepali officials ran out of the violently shaking building, out on to the tarmac. I was one of the laggards but soon caught up with the fleeing crowd.

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While running I came across a passport someone had dropped in the long corridor. It was a Chinese passport. Outside on the flat ground there must have been a couple of hundred very frightened people, some laughing nervously, others with a look of sheer horror on their faces and still others counting their prayer beads with furious zeal. The owner of the lost passport, a young Chinese woman, was located and a small crowd of grateful Chinese women thronged to thank me profusely. The aftershocks continued while we hung around the tarmac and in the distance one could see a cloud of dust rising, presumably from collapsed houses and buildings.

During a short lull, we headed back into the airport building and then out to the car park. Several aftershocks continued with cars swaying back and forth with the almost continuous tremors. A call to the embassy confirmed that there had been considerable damage around the city and news was trickling in about several avalanches and landslides in the mountainous areas to the north and west, precisely the direction we would have been headed towards for our trek. In fact, had our flight not been late, we would have been on the road and perhaps towards a bigger disaster had the earthquake struck us while on the road. We decided to call off the trek and began to explore possibilities of taking a flight  back to Delhi. The airport was closed and no flights were landing or taking off. We left our travel agent to try and arrange our passage back as and when the airport opened. We then headed to the Indian embassy compound for a patient wait.

The drive through the city itself did not show major damage. A few old and some temporary structures had collapsed as had some of the electric poles with a mass of tangled cables. Large crowds were gathered on the roadsides and open squares but there was no sign of panic.

At one place, we came across a Nepali bride, in all her wedding finery and surrounded by other colourfully dressed relatives and friends, squatting along the roadside. The ceremony had been interrupted by the earthquake and the sudden collapse of the pandal.  One hopes the proceedings were resumed eventually. An earthshaking tying of the knot which would be remembered by the couple long hereafter.

While at the embassy, we found Ambassador Ranjit Rae on the phone continuously, talking to Delhi and to authorities in Nepal, trying to organise a speedy and largescale rescue effort. All the embassy staff and their families were out in the open. The  daughter of an embassy employee had also been killed in a house collapse. One could sense the mood of apprehension but the mission was hard at work to get the massive Indian rescue effort going. Even while we were waiting in the garden of India House, the aftershocks continued, some stronger than others. Meanwhile, news kept trickling in of the severe damage to property and loss of life from across Nepal. Having served in Nepal with many fond memories, it was heartbreaking to hear of the unfolding and overwhelming dimension of the calamity.

It was around 2:30 pm when we were informed that despite cracks in the runaway, some flights would take off in the afternoon. The airport was expected to open at 3 pm for a brief but unspecified period. We headed back again, through streets crowded with people seeking the safety of open spaces.

There was chaos outside Kathmandu airport with large crowds of passengers milling about hoping to get flights out of the country. We were told that the airport remained closed and we could not go inside the terminal. While we were arguing with the airport security, a very strong tremor was felt and again people ran out helter-skelter. Thanks to the embassy staff accompanying us, and a most resourceful trekking agent, we were finally allowed inside the terminal building en route to the tarmac. It was eerie inside, with not a soul to be seen within the immigration and customs halls. Our boarding cards on the Jet Airways flight back to Delhi were handed over to us and baggage checked in by a solitary airline staff waiting to receive us. We made it to the flight and back to Delhi late in the afternoon.

This tragedy was the last thing Nepal needed, beset as it is with continuing political instability and a stagnating economy. The political leaders are unable to reach a consensus on a new Constitution despite deadline after deadline having been set and ignored. The economy remains at a standstill due to the lack of predictable policies and general uncertainty. Sometimes it takes a major national tragedy to help forge a political consensus and facilitate political reconciliation. Nepal needs its leaders to come together and confront and overcome this unprecedented national calamity. India can and must help. It cannot, however, be a substitute for what Nepal itself must do for its people.

— The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and former Ambassador to Nepal. He is currently Chairman, RIS and Senior Fellow, CPR.

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