Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Earthquakes Don't Kill

Earthquakes don’t kill, buildings do. In the recent Nepalese earthquake almost all the victims were buried in the rubble of their houses made by untrained masons of stones barely stuck together with mud. It is a very popular method, because it is the cheapest – stones and mud are free, bricks and cement cost more money.

In Ramche scattered over the terraced hills of district Dhading, 38 km northwest of Kathmandu, 168 houses out of a total 181 are no longer inhabitable. According to the latest government report, the disaster damaged 607,212 buildings in 16 districts. Of them, 63 percent in areas dominated by Tamangs – the largest and the most destitute group among the Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples of the Himalayan region – although they constitute less than six percent (1.35 million) of Nepal’s population. Ramche is a Tamang village. Some of the people own small plots of land on which they grow corn and potatoes of walnut size, but crops can feed the farmers’ family only for two to three months. For the rest of the year they live on contracted labour. The residents of Ramche admit they are very poor. Why? Because, their answer goes, their fathers were poor, as well as the fathers of their fathers. They accept this as a judgment of fate and do not feel discriminated against, only showing how inequity is grown into the tissue of the society, the result of concerted exploitation for centuries. This hill tribe has always provided a labour reserve pool for the rulers of Kathmandu. In the past, Tamangs were prevented from joining the administration and the military. Even today they may man the barricades but have little role in the upper hierarchy of the armed forces or police, and are unrepresented in the country´s national affairs.

Earthquakes don’t kill, inequity does – out of 8,844 people who died in the earthquake, 3,012 were Tamangs. Over 50 percent of the victims belonged to the marginalised communities. More than half the victims were women. Being Buddhists did not immunise Tamangs from the caste system evolved by ruling Hindus. Those who wield power belong to Brahmin, Newars and Chhetri people and these “well-born” elites look down on the Tamangs. Economic deprivation has increased the influx of indigent peasants to the job markets of Kathmandu, where they make up half of the porters and the majority of three-wheeler tempo (”taxi”) drivers. Prison surveys have shown that a disproportionate number of Tamangs are behind bars for criminal offences.

They have never counted on any government’s help, and this time is no different. After the earthquake, the residents of Ramche helped each other, cooked meals together and joined hands to raise themselves up from the rubble. With a little help from NGOs, the situation was brought under control. Only time will tell if, in the process of planning reconstruction, the government of Nepal will use an opportunity to find out why the Tamangs are so vulnerable to natural disasters and what can be done to protect them from future calamities.

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