Before we travelled to Gorkha Bazaar in early August 2015, the headquarters of the district that was the epicentre of the 25 April earthquake, we knew people were already accusing earthquake victims of being insincere about the aid they had received.
In late June, a friend posted on Facebook details of a meeting his friend had with a Village Development Committee (VDC) secretary, the government’s representative at the village level. The secretary was tasked with creating a list of earthquake-affected families in his VDC and distributing identity cards to earthquake victims, which would entitle them to relief material. The official claimed that the public turned out to be bigger ‘swindlers’ than politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and other VDC secretaries themselves. He was referring to what he thought was the locals’ tendency to report themselves as victims of the earthquake even when their houses seemed relatively fine.
The government decided to provide the victims NPR 15,000 in immediate relief, among other things. The objective was to help those who lost their houses to buy corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheets and build temporary shelters before the onset of monsoon. Soon the rain started pouring; as did the news of delays in disbursement of the cash. The most cited explanation behind the delay was that the number of households registering themselves for the ID cards surpassed the total household estimates based on the 2011 census and other surveys. Before we left for Gorkha, we had received a written clarification on the holdup from the Dolakha wing of VDC Secretaries Welfare and Protection Centre. One of its points read: “the delay was due to the public’s tendency to lie to get the victim ID card.”
In Gorkha Bazaar, this trend of blaming the victims continued. Most people we encountered in the Bazaar criticised earthquake victims for acting greedy, for not being satisfied with the aid they were receiving, and for thinking that aid was their right and not their need. A radio station manager said people in Gorkha had started naming villages based on the kinds of institutions that provided aid – an INGO village, an NGO village and a sarkaari (government) village. No one liked being in a sarkaari village, he said, because the government only handed households NPR 15,000 each. Other organisations, on the other hand, provided a little extra, like a hygiene kit with a bucket and a bar of soap. “Even then, they are not satisfied. The victims have started complaining that they received toothbrushes in aid but not toothpaste,” he said. “They might have enough sacks of rice to last a year, but they will never say this to a surveyor.”
On our way to Nimjung, a small village a little outside the Bazaar, we continued to hear similar reactions. A volunteer, who travels to such villages on a regular basis to understand the relief work being carried out, said that the best way to find out about the relief items a household had received was to ask the neighbouring communities. “If we want to know about the kind of aid a Hindu village has received, we should ask the Muslim community and vice-versa,” he said.
Those being critical of the victims find greed – their desire to amass as much free stuff as possible – to be the underlying factor behind the victims’ ‘dishonesty’. But how much is enough, especially when the victims belong to communities long ignored by the state? These days, people in Sindhupalchowk joke that the earthquake has finally made the government, humanitarian agencies and the media notice them. Never had they seen such uninterrupted attention before. But did the attention really come for free? They lost their family members, their cattle, their houses, and their sense of security in structures around them, in the earth beneath. Some of the houses might look fine, but the fear of being crushed by them is real. It takes a long time to recuperate from trauma like that.
In our work, where we sift through rumours circulating among earthquake-affected communities, we have found that many of those who pass scathing judgements on victims are not victims themselves and that their negative statements about the victims often veil their own prejudices. We have received written reports where ‘high-caste’ feedback collectors are amazed that Dalit villages are dirty and that Tamangs brew alcohol – reinforcing two of the stereotypes about the communities. One of the reports we received was about the rise in number of young women aborting their babies in faraway facilities, not because the near ones were destroyed in the quake, but because the women were ‘ashamed’ of their pregnancies.
Victim bashers also fail to see the larger factors behind a victim’s seeming crookedness, such as the information gap and the inconsistencies in which the government has implemented its post-earthquake recovery plan. Most of the victims (and also the victim blamers) are largely unaware of how relief and recovery work is being planned, coordinated and executed. Most do not know what the ‘duplication’ of relief efforts means. This is because different government officials have defined this phrase differently. In Gorkha, for instance, if a household receives CGI sheets from an NGO, it is not entitled to the NPR 15,000 which the government is distributing for buying these sheets. In other earthquake-affected districts, however, external help from other organisations does not make a household ineligible for government’s help.
Even the word ‘household’ is not defined uniformly across the affected districts. The directive issued by the Home Ministry leaves it vague – a family consisting of mother, father, husband and wife, living together – and therefore, up to the discretion of a VDC or municipality-level team assigned to register the affected households. Some VDC secretaries have counted two brothers who live in the same house but have separate kitchens as two households; others have simply counted a house as a household, irrespective of the number of families who lived inside. If a man has two wives and the two wives live separately in separate houses, some VDC secretaries have registered them as two households while others have demanded a proof of legal separation between the husband and one of the wives.
Nor does the government have a detailed, integrated database of relief work carried out so far, which the humanitarian agencies, media and the public could use to figure out how much aid has been distributed, whether there has been unwitting discrimination in aid distribution and whether some communities are still out of reach. For a person in an outlying village of an affected district, the whole relief and recovery work can look like a mess. When people cannot fathom how a system works, they are bound to be fearful and distrustful of nosy visitors.
~ Weena Pun is a writer-journalist based in Kathmandu.