A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple. Photo: Omar Havana/Getty Images
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Nepal has become a country that can't see the future – this quake gives us a chance to change that

I look at my house, damaged when a neighbour’s house collapsed on to it, and I wonder: will any of this be rebuilt?

Four days after a huge 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, the ordeal is far from over. There have been close to 100 aftershocks. The death toll, at the time of writing, has risen above 5,000. As news arrives of even greater destruction outside Kathmandu, that figure is expected to rise. People are buried beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings, waiting to be rescued. Many thousands have been stranded outside, battling cold and rain, without food, water or medicine.

I wish I could say this tragedy could not have been predicted – that it was something we could not have prepared for. Yet for decades experts have been warning that a major earthquake could devastate Nepal. The country sits in a zone of high seismic activity. Catastrophic earthquakes occur here every 70 to 80 years; the last one was in 1934.

Western media coverage of the quake has focused on how, as a poor country, Nepal lacks the capacity for disaster preparation and relief. While this is undoubtedly true, the reality is that political apathy and criminal unaccountability, cemented by years of political transition, have made a disaster-prone country even more vulnerable. For years, successive governments have largely ignored the need to enforce and institute building codes, promote earthquake safety and plan for disaster relief. This lack of planning has only become more apparent as the government has struggled to co-ordinate relief assistance and mobilise resources after the earthquake. Two rescue teams, one from New Zealand and the other from Finland, were sent home by a government that had no idea how to use them.

Nepali people have long known that they cannot rely on the state. Even when the government has been slow to respond, they have remained calm. At least so far, there has been no anger or unrest as has been widely claimed. But that could easily change as conditions deteriorate.

I look at the ruined cityscape of Kathmandu, the monuments and scenes of my childhood which now survive only in my memory, the archaeological treasures handed down across the centuries and destroyed in a minute. The weight of loss is immense. I look at my house, damaged when a neighbour’s house collapsed on to it, and I wonder: will any of this be rebuilt?

One can’t help but be angry. While our political parties chase an elusive consensus on a new constitution, seeking to resolve ideological differences that look increasingly detached from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, progress on simple matters such as economy and governance has taken a backseat. Local elections have not taken place in Nepal for 18 years – first due to insecurity caused by the decade-long civil war and later as a result of the political parties’ desire to avoid going to the polls. Not having locally elected bodies has made current relief efforts both slow and ineffective.

Political organisations, social institutions and state organs have been rendered defunct by years of corruption and intransigence. Today, it is only the army and the security forces that are maintaining any kind of governance.

Our immediate focus should be on rescue and relief. This is where a lot of humanitarian assistance has been directed successfully. Soon, however, we will need to start thinking about rebuilding and beginning afresh. This will mean nothing less than a complete political and economic overhaul. But we have become a country that cannot see beyond the next few years (or electoral terms).

A disaster such as this one presents an opportunity to reorient our national priorities. For a country that has had problems forging political consensus, perhaps the need to rebuild and prevent future disasters could be a uniting factor – leading us to co-operate and form the basis of a social contract. Over the coming years, sustainable development and disaster preparation should guide our politics. Public participation, government accountability and responsive governance can all flow from there.

People have been saying that one of the reasons we were so ill-prepared for the disaster was our fatalism. But what causes fatalism? It is the belief that individual actions cannot change anything. It is because people lack access to those who govern. This is the heart of our problem. Poverty and heightened vulnerability are only one aspect. This is what we need to work to change during the difficult days ahead.

The people of Nepal have overcome many upheavals in their history and they will rise from this, too. But perhaps it is time we stopped taking pride in being survivors and worked to build our resilience, collectively, to every kind of disaster and adversity. 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution