So violently were the buildings shaking in Kathmandu when the earthquake hit just before noon on Saturday that Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal Southasian, who was trying to run down from her first floor apartment, could not reach the stairs. Losing balance, she kept hitting the walls. The 50-metre high Dharahara Tower, a tourist attraction in central Kathmandu, was reduced to a heap of rubble. Two hundred visitors, mostly families, had bought tickets to go up that morning. Less than 10 per cent survived.
This natural calamity might cost as many lives as Nepal’s manmade disaster, the 10-year civil war. As it has overcome armed conflict through a still to be completed but remarkable peace process, so will it overcome this present adversity, Nepal’s friends hope.
Besides the devastating loss of lives, the earthquake has destroyed much of the cultural heritage of Nepal, bringing down important religious and historic monuments in old Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The heritage of Nepal is indestructible, however, because its culture is a living one. The confluence of two linguistic streams, the Indo-European and the Tibeto-Burman, as well as of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, has inspired folklore, myth and legend, ritual and belief, myriad forms of music and dance. These live on.
Nepalis rebuilt by themselves most of the monuments and homesteads that came down in a similar calamity 80 years ago. This time, there might be many others to lend them a helping hand.
“Nepal is a God-gifted country”, actor Dev Anand used to say. Kalidasa, in his epic poem, Kumarasambhava, called it “the kingdom of heaven”. Lying in the shadow of the Himalayas, it is the product of an upheaval deep within the earth’s core, 65 million years ago, that broke the massive southern continent of Gondwanaland, propelling it northward towards the Eurasian landmass, crumpling the intervening ocean floors and heaving them skyward into what became the mighty Himalayas. Nepal is the best-endowed country in Asia, but also fated to suffer from seismic fragility — the consequence of the geophysical readjustment of the subterranean continental plates.
There is a geophysical inevitability to an earthquake of this magnitude in Nepal, with an average predicted cycle of about half a century. After the Nepal-Bihar tragedy of 1934, this event was overdue; worse, expected.
According to the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium, conceived under the United Nations umbrella in 2009, assessments suggested a major earthquake in Kathmandu would result in 1,00,000 deaths, with hundreds of thousands more injured and close to one million displaced.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency’s 2002 study on earthquake disaster mitigation estimated that a mid-Nepal earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 might cause a death toll of 18,000 in the Kathmandu Valley alone, or 1.3 per cent of the population, with another 3.8 per cent seriously injured, and 21 per cent of the buildings heavily damaged.
A monumental calamity, even more cataclysmic than what we witnessed, has been averted, fortunately, for now. Even so, casualty figures are bound to rise as reports from the mid-hills districts of central and eastern Nepal are compiled. The destruction this time has been devastating, and people are still in shock. The continuing tremors have added to the panic that has already set in.
General Gaurav Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Nepal’s chief of army staff, mentioned to me that, thus far, though some two dozen districts have been affected, nine of them, from Rasuwa to Solukhumbu (the Mount Everest region), including the three districts of the Kathmandu Valley, have borne the brunt of the impact. Traditional mud and mortar houses have been demolished on a very large scale in a much wider area, including in Gorkha and Lamjung. Rana said that habitation just below the snowline in the impacted districts of the upper Himalayan reaches has been razed to the ground.
India mobilised quickly as the first responder. Its rescue teams and materials were ready to fly within four hours of the tragedy. The first of its C-130 aircraft landed with relief supplies at the Tribhuvan International Airport within seven hours. MI-17 helicopters were deployed the following morning. This prompt effort will have to be sustained.
The Himalayan region, across nations, suffers from the triple constraints of scarce agricultural land, physical disconnectivity and relative neglect. Nepal also faces the erosive impact of dry Central Asian and westerly winds as well as monsoon rains. This is compounded by the relative fragility of the Himalayas from deforestation and the melting of glaciers.
Nepal’s present predicament is a reminder that its long-term development partnership with India must address investments to sustain livelihoods and the ecological rehabilitation of the deforested Churia hills. The immediate focus, of course, shall have to be on humanitarian assistance — India will do all that is required in the manner to be determined by the Nepali people and government.
Given the scale of damage to Nepal’s people and infrastructure, it faces an immediate and monumental challenge, and not for the first time in its recent history. It is an opportunity, says the former foreign and home minister, Madhav Ghimire, for its political parties to come together and formulate a consolidated roadmap to cope with the tasks ahead — first, providing relief and rehabilitation; second, a robust plan for disaster management, and eventually, completing the unfinished peace process.
The Swiss geologist, Toni Hagen, in his 1961 work, Nepal: The Kingdom of the Himalayas, described the country as “the ethnic turntable of Asia”. Despite their ethnic diversity, Nepalis display greater social solidarity than other South Asians, including Indians, demonstrated by their lead in many areas of human development, such as the rate of reduction of poverty, child malnutrition, maternal and post-natal mortality. This, despite a declining per capita income. The Nepali people will certainly rise to the reconstruction challenge with their characteristic resilience and tenacity and, after laying their departed to rest, go back to rebuilding their cities, villages and lives.
The writer is former ambassador of India to Nepal