Some flood victims complained that party cadres had listed even those not affected by floods as flood victims.
Life in Tarai that was devastated by monsoon floods last week is slowly getting back to normal, and with this the ‘politics of relief’ has well and truly started. The reason is local elections in Province 2 that is scheduled for September 18.
Incessant rains since August 10 triggered floods and landslides across the country. In Tarai, this is the first time the entire region—from Jhapa to Kanchanpur—has been affected by floods at the same time. Province 2 is the worst-hit.
According to home ministry, over 150 people have died, dozens are missing, thousands of houses are damaged and thousands more completely inundated. In Rautahat and Saptari districts of Province 2, preliminary data shows death of 18 people, with over 60,000 households affected by floods.
All for votes
First, the ministry data is incomplete. In some places, the numbers of deaths and losses have been shown disproportionately high by representatives of political parties. They are busy appeasing their voters through the mobilization of their cadres in data collection. While monitoring flood-affected areas, some victims complained to me that party cadres had listed even those not affected by floods as flood victims. Parties are doing this as this will ensure disbursement of more funds for local bodies for relief and rehabilitation and they will also be able to influence voters citing this ‘contribution’.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had on August 12 directed Chief District Officers to spare no effort in rescue and relief. But this did not happen in Rautahat. Without enough boats and helicopters, victims in this district could not be promptly rescued. Shortage of money made matters worse.
Emergency response by Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) led by Chief District Officer was limited to holding meetings. The DDRC’s first meeting after the disaster made no substantial decisions on emergency response except demanding more resources from the center.
The situation in other districts is more or less the same. Needless to say, local bodies responsible for alleviating the suffering of victims were unprepared and didn’t have enough resources and contingency plans.
Lack of quick emergency response has made victims feel the absence of state. They were already alienated due to human rights violations committed by state forces during the Madhes protest of 2015/16. Slow government response has only added to this alienation.
Immediate assistance by individuals, charities, private organizations, NGOs and INGOs could have filled the gap create by government’s late response. But the one-window policy barred them from raising funds and directly distributing them to affected people. The donors too appear reluctant to channel their funds through the government. After the 2015 earthquakes the government raised billions but failed to provide quake victims timely help. Even today, post-quake rehabilitation and reconstruction is progressing at snail’s pace.
Ironically, district level authorities claim one-window policy helps them store relief materials in one place and one-window also prevents duplication of help.
Members of DDRCs are seen busy holding meetings to implement one-window policy, instead of visiting affected areas.
More than half a dozen ministers, including Home Minister Janardhan Sharma, Minister for Urban Development Prabhu Shah and Minister for Agricultural Development Ram Krishna Yadav, visited Rautahat district. Likewise, over a dozen parliamentarians and political leaders, including Amaresh Singh and Ram Chandra Paudel from Nepali Congress, Ram Kumar Bhattarai from CPN- UML, Mustaq Alam from Gachhedar-led Madhesi People’s Rights Forum Nepal also came here.
Political leaders are focused on their own constituencies and are distributing relief only to their voters and cadres. This has led to unequal distribution. On Saturday, a group of local youths from Parsa who went with relief materials to Rautahat could not distribute them due to political disputes even though the District Administration Office had permitted them to do so.
The government has decided to provide Rs 200,000 to the kin of the deceased, and Rs 70 per day per person for meal for a month. This is a pittance. The government must come up with a special package and plans to address the needs of affected people in Madhes.
The manner in which relief materials are being distributed in Terai shows political parties are capitalizing on floods for electoral gains. This dirty politicization of relief efforts is going to deprive actual victims their share of state aid.
Floods wreck havoc in Tarai every year. The victims, as always, are left to fend for themselves. Government is the ultimate authority to help people in crisis. Apart from announcing a package of relief, an independent team must physically verify loss and damage. This crisis should be used as an opportunity to prepare a new development plan for affected areas of Tarai.
Political parties need to unite, as they did during the 2015 earthquakes, to alleviate the sufferings of victims. They should help government and aid agencies keep their relief and rehab works free from politics. Political parties should stop trying to politicize this great human tragedy. The state, for its part, must assure flood victims that it is with them in this time of need.