A few minutes before noon on April 25, 2015, the Great Himalayan Thrust, a fault line between the Indian and Eurasian continental plates, ruptured deep beneath Gorkha district, fifty miles northwest of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. The sudden slippage caused an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that sent seismic waves ripping through the Kathmandu Valley, the site of three ancient cities—Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur—and seven UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In sixty-five seconds, much of Nepal’s cultural patrimony was damaged or destroyed. One hundred eighty people died when the two-hundred-foot-high Dharahara Tower in Kathmandu, built in 1832, with an eighth-story observation deck that overlooked the valley, collapsed. Centuries-old temples, including the Vatsala Devi, famed for its sandstone walls and gold-topped pagodas, fell in Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the plaza in front of the royal palace of the old Bhaktapur kingdom. In Durbar Square in Kathmandu, more than half of the forty temples were damaged or destroyed. About 1,800 people in the valley were killed.
Yet the ruin in Kathmandu was incidental to an even greater tragedy. As Thomas Bell, a former Economist and Telegraph correspondent and a longtime Kathmandu resident, writes in Kathmandu, his sprawling history and memoir of Nepal and its fast-growing capital:
In fact the [worst] disaster was not in Kathmandu, where everyone expected it, but in the countryside, especially in districts directly above the rupture. Landslides were set off in many places. The village of Langtang, 60 kilometres north of Kathmandu, was obliterated by an avalanche that buried three-storey houses and killed…300 people….
Most rural houses were of two or three storeys, built of stones bound together with mud, and in many villages most houses were destroyed. It was very fortunate that at midday on a Saturday most people were outdoors. Altogether about 9,000 people were killed and over two million were made homeless, a few weeks before the monsoon.
The number of dead would have been far greater had it not been for the rapid response of both international and domestic rescue teams. Within a couple of days, Chinese, Indian, and US military rescue teams began carrying relief supplies to remote airstrips and stricken villages, and Nepalese police and soldiers fanned out across the country, pulling thousands from the rubble. Small private groups acting without licenses or oversight also carried out much of the initial relief work. These ad hoc NGOs raised money from Facebook and crowd sourcing, signed up hundreds of volunteers, and delivered tents, medical equipment, and emergency rations to remote areas. Typical of these groups was the Yellow House, formed two days after the disaster by, among others, Ben Ayers, a US climber and development expert, and a Nepalese photographer, Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati. The group enlisted volunteers ranging from Indian surgeons to, Kakshapati says, “hippie-New Age types” who had been attending a rave festival near Kathmandu when the disaster struck. The Yellow House dispatched hundreds of missions into remote areas and became the fourth-largest distributor of aid in the month after the earthquake.
These heroic efforts stood in marked contrast to the passivity of Nepal’s government. The prime minister at the time, Sushil Koirala, who was traveling abroad, learned about the earthquake in a phone call from the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and didn’t make a public appearance for days afterward. Then, instead of moving forthrightly to take advantage of $4.4 billion in reconstruction funds pledged by sixty nations at a donor conference in Kathmandu, Nepal’s three main political parties bickered and jockeyed for control of the money. Nine months went by before they agreed to establish a Reconstruction Authority—a prerequisite of the donors before they would release the funds.
The crisis was compounded by an uproar over the country’s new constitution, a hastily written, ill-conceived document that enraged the long-oppressed and ignored minority groups living in Nepal’s border zone with India. Last September, protesters tacitly supported by India organized a six-month-long blockade of the border that cut off oil supplies and paralyzed the landlocked country. The yearlong crisis has exposed both the dysfunction of the political system that replaced the monarchy in 2006 and the deep fault lines that run through Nepal’s society. It has shaken the country’s faith in democracy, and heightened cynicism about its leaders. Millions of homeless Nepalese suffered through one of the harshest winters in decades. They continue to live in tents and flimsy huts, and no end to their suffering is in sight.
One recent morning I visited Durbar Square, in the historic heart of Kathmandu. A vast complex of Hindu temples dating to the early seventeenth century, the plaza stands opposite the former palace of the monarchs who ruled this city-state before King Prithvi Narayan Shah of the Gorkha Kingdom unified Nepal in 1769. During the 1960s and 1970s, when Kathmandu was the most popular destination on the hippie trail through Asia, young Europeans and Americans gathered to smoke pot on the steps of the square’s centerpiece, the Maju Deval, otherwise known as the Hippie Temple, a triple-roofed pagoda rising from a nine-tiered ochre platform. Just south of the temple is the ancient alleyway known briefly as Freak Street, a hippie nirvana that was lined by government-licensed shops that legally sold marijuana and hashish.
I spent many pleasant hours sitting on the steps of the Hippie Temple—famed for its erotic carvings on the roofs and shiva lingam, a phallic fertility symbol—thirty-five years ago, before beginning a seven-week trek around the Annapurna Range in western Nepal. This was at the tail end of an era when the mystical appeal of the country’s capital was matched by the monarchy’s laissez-faire attitude. Bell writes:
Kathmandu was cleaner and cooler than India, without the hassle and the sexual harassment. Drugs were legal, the locals seemed tolerant, and the foreigners were grateful to be left alone. They formed insular communities…. They smoked a prodigious amount of dope.
In the late 1970s the government tired of the hippies, made marijuana and hashish illegal, and expelled many expatriates who had hung around for months or, in some cases, years. The Maju Deval survived a powerful 1934 earthquake largely intact, but it wasn’t as lucky this time. When the quake struck, I was told by Rajesh Giri, a tour guide, “it collapsed in a cloud of dust.” Today, all that is left of the Hippie Temple is the empty base. The adjacent Kasthamandap, an elegant three-tiered pagoda constructed around 1600, also collapsed, killing several people inside. Now wooden buttresses prop up teetering buildings, and police tape marked “danger” keeps much of the square off-limits. Nearly a year after the earthquake, reconstruction has yet to begin. “Our politicians talk and talk, and nothing gets accomplished,” Giri told me, gesturing to an ornate pagoda decorated with carvings of the elephant god Ganesh that leaned at a precarious angle against the top floors of a former royal palace. The earthquake had torn a hole in the city’s heart, he said, erasing a fundamental part of Nepalese national identity.
To a great extent that identity was forged by the Shahs, who ruled from Durbar Square as absolute monarchs until 1846, when a new dynasty, the Ranas, seized control, appointed themselves hereditary prime ministers, and reduced the Shahs to figureheads. The Shahs regained power in a 1951 coup, and ruled with iron fists for the next fifty-five years. When I flew to Nepal from Bangkok on Royal Nepal Airlines nearly four decades ago, the bespectacled visage of King Birendra hung in every office and adorned every bank note. The absolute monarch presided over a stratified system that, as Bell writes, was dominated by two castes, the Brahmins and the Chhetris:
The high castes of the hill villages had ruled the city, and the rest of the country, for the last few hundred years. Politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and journalists were overwhelmingly Brahmins. Chhetris—one step below them in the hierarchy—provided the old elite of the monarchy, aristocracy and army officers…. There were about 100 castes, linguistic and ethnic groups in Nepal, most with further subdivisions among them, all living together in Kathmandu and regarding one another with a mixture of tolerance, anxiety, mild bemusement, indifference, and contempt.
In 1996, however, a societal upheaval began to convulse Nepal. A small band of Maoist rebels declared a “People’s War” against the government, called for the collectivization of private land, and built a rudimentary arsenal. The Nepali journalist Prashant Jha, in his authoritative Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, which follows the country’s tumultuous path from the Maoist rebellion to the years just before the earthquake, writes that the first two guns obtained by the Maoists
were the same rifles which had been air-dropped by the US in 1961 to help Tibetan rebels and incite a rebellion against [Communist] China. The irony could not have been starker. Many Nepali Maoist leaders received their initial armed training from retired soldiers who had worked in the Gorkha regiments in the Indian army. Armed training also came from another source—Indian Maoists, waging a war against the Indian state. Nepal’s Maoist commanders were to visit camps in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh to learn from their comrades across the border.
The Maoists launched their war with attacks on isolated military posts deep in the foothills. They seized more weapons, recruited fighters among the poorest of the poor, drove out the police from remote villages, executed landholders and “collaborators,” and gained control of much of the country.
Then, in June 2001, five years into the rebellion, the beleaguered Shah dynasty suffered a cataclysmic blow. Crown Prince Dipendra, a volatile, Eton-educated twenty-nine-year-old with a fondness for weaponry and a reputation for torturing house pets as a child, gunned down nine family members, including King Birendra, with a collection of semiautomatic rifles that he had stored in his bedroom, and then shot himself. According to one account, the crown prince was angered about his parents’ refusal to sanction his marriage to a Nepali woman of a slightly lower caste; others say that he was enraged at his father for ceding power to Nepal’s Parliament following demonstrations in 1990.
The killings shocked the Nepalese public, and tarnished the image of the Shah dynasty. Maoist leaders alleged that the king’s brother, Gyanendra, who succeeded Birendra, had orchestrated the assassinations in order to step up the war against the rebels. The charge was patently false, but it gained credence after the new monarch sidelined the ineffectual police force and ordered the Nepalese army to attack the Maoists. The strategy backfired: the troops tortured and murdered thousands of civilians, and the rebel ranks swelled with new recruits.
In 2006, with the two sides fighting to a stalemate, a coalition of pro-democracy groups joined forces with the Maoists and mobilized thousands of people in the streets of Kathmandu. The protests forced the abdication of the autocratic and unpopular Gyanendra, and led to the establishment of Nepal’s first democratic republic. It was a moment of “tremendous optimism,” recalls Devendra Raj Panday, a veteran human rights activist who marched in the protests that year. As Bell writes in Kathmandu, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed at the end of 2006 provided a road map to the new republic:
The Maoist army would be integrated into the national army, which would be reformed. Until then the former fighters would wait in camps monitored by the United Nations. The Maoists would return the land they had captured, mostly from absentee landlords, and there would be “scientific land reform” in return. As the Maoists had demanded, there would be elections to a constituent assembly which would write a new constitution, to address historic iniquities and create a “new Nepal.”
In 2008, the Maoists won a plurality of the votes in Nepal’s first post-monarchy election, and Ram Baran Yadav, a former Maoist leader, became the prime minister. Ex-guerrillas who two years earlier had been wearing ragtag fatigues and attacking police posts assumed command of ministries and millions of dollars in donor funds. Surprisingly, the Maoists established themselves as centrists—a finance minister won plaudits from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—but the optimism didn’t last. The Maoists went from “killing people and being killed to going after the same perks of power as everybody else,” says Panday. “They became just like the mainstream parties—with the same corruption as the rest of them.” Politics remained a musical chairs game now waged by three main parties battling for spoils and patronage. Governments rose and fell—a total of eight since 2008—and accomplished little. When Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited Kathmandu in April 2014 and was introduced to Nepal’s top political leaders, she joked, “Never have I been in a room with so many former prime ministers.”
Ben Ayers, the cofounder of the Yellow House, got an intimate look at Nepal’s corruption after the earthquake. Two weeks into his fund-raising drive, the government bank began diverting all international relief money into an account controlled by the prime minister. “Nobody had any illusions that the government was going to do anything with it,” I was told by Ayers, who has lived and worked in development in Nepal since 2002. “So we had to smuggle in cash. We drove bundles of it across the border from New Delhi.” Ayers and his fellow activists also discovered that tents, roofing tin, and other vital relief supplies had been diverted to the black market. “They were being hijacked by the parties to distribute to their own constituents,” he says. He was forced to purchase tarpaulin for tents in factories in Bihar and smuggle them on night buses to Kathmandu. “The message [from the parties] is, ‘we are the ones who gave you the roofing tins, remember us,’” said Ayers.
Ayers watched in disgust as the first head of the Nepalese Reconstruction Authority, a distinguished figure in the Nepal Congress Party, the country’s oldest party, was blocked from carrying out his duties by the rival Unified Marxist-Leninist Party. “They want their 15 to 20 percent [cut] of the $4.4 billion,” Ayers said. The UML eventually succeeded in driving him out and putting its own man in the job.
Since last fall, Nepal’s recovery has been slowed further by a clash between the elites in the hills and the Madhesis, or “plain dwellers,” who have lived on both sides of the Nepal–India border for centuries and have strong ethnic and family ties in India, especially Bihar. Tensions between these groups have long been a fact of Nepali life. As Prasant Jha, a Madhesi, writes in Battles of the New Republic:
The ruling elite just did not trust the Madhesis. They were seen as “migrants,” “people of Indian origin,” or “Indians,” who had continued to maintain cultural practices and spoke languages which were distinct from the hill Nepalis. Their national loyalties were suspect, and the Palace felt that this was India’s natural constituency which it could use to weaken the regime, or even to “break the country.”
In recent years, political parties representing the Madhesis became more vocal and better organized, and they joined forces with the Maoists to push for a new constitution. They wanted to replace Nepal’s centralized government with a federal system that would carve the country into self-ruling enclaves. The Madhesis sought a single province running across the Terai—the low-lying wetlands and forests that form a narrow strip along Nepal’s eight-hundred-mile border with India—unifying the group and giving it control over the cross-border trade routes. The hill elites put forth a counterproposal: slicing the country into half a dozen provinces that would run from north to south, giving the hill-dwelling Brahmins and Chhetris a majority in each zone.
After the earthquake, Nepal’s main parties decided to push through a final version of the constitution. “The politicians had been excoriated for vanishing after the quake, and they wanted to redeem themselves,” says Kunda Dixit, editor of The Nepali Times, the country’s most prestigious English-language newspaper. But in a significant miscalculation, the parties divided up the country according to the hill elites’ proposal. When violent protests erupted in the Terai, Nepalese security forces shot dead forty demonstrators. Madhesi youths threw up barricades at the border crossings with India, and set fire to tanker trucks attempting to bring fuel into Nepal. “Nepal was polarized,” says Bell, “and it was a self-inflicted injury.”
The Indian government allegedly abetted this blockade by ordering its customs agents not to let the tankers through the crossing points. Leaders of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were reportedly furious about a clause in Nepal’s new constitution that declared the country a “secular” state. There was also much anger about what was seen as the shortchanging of the Madhesis.
With only 10 percent of Nepal’s usual fuel supplies entering the country at border crossings, helicopters were grounded, road traffic paralyzed. Generators shut down; many people, even in urban areas, were forced to cook their meals with firewood. Some fuel entered Nepal through the black market—controlled by the party elites—and China arranged an emergency convoy of oil tankers down a rough, quake-damaged road through the high Himalayas. But “the suffering in the hills was tremendous,” Dixit told me, “and people died as a result.”
Days before I arrived in Nepal in February, the government reached an agreement with the Madhesis to lift the six-month-old blockade in exchange for a promise of a constitutional amendment to redraw the provincial boundaries. The demonstrators had been showing up in fewer numbers over the last couple of months, and knew that support for their cause was dwindling. And India, which has always sought to maintain influence over Nepal, had kept up constant pressure on the government to grant the Madhesis concessions.
Early one morning I set out from Kathmandu in a four-wheel-drive vehicle for Sindhupalchowk district, just east of Gorkha, where some of the worst earthquake damage had occurred. According to government statistics, 96.8 percent of the district’s houses were destroyed, 3,550 people were killed, and thousands injured. I was joined on the journey by Pradip Khatiwada, the coordinator of the National Volunteering Program, one of the many unlicensed groups that are providing building materials and other supplies to villagers who had been abandoned by the Nepali government. His group has seven thousand volunteers, and is active in fourteen out of seventy-five districts. Driving out of the Kathmandu Valley, we passed long lines of motorcyclists waiting to fill their tanks with their allotted five liters of fuel. The blockade had lifted days earlier, but India was sending only 70 percent of its normal fuel supplies, and the shortages continued. “During the worst of the fuel crisis lines were three miles long, and people waited for twelve hours or more,” he told me. “So this is a big improvement.”
A few miles down a dirt track past the heavily damaged district capital, Chautara, we came upon Peepaldada, a hamlet of six hundred people clinging to a hillside overlooking a fertile valley. Ten months after the earthquake, most of the population was still living beneath tarpaulins. “The winter was very difficult for us,” a toothless old man told me. Some had built crude structures using the rubble from their destroyed homes; the neediest had received iron frames from the volunteer group, which they had lined with corrugated tin walls and covered with a tin roof. The only assistance they had received from the government was 10,000 rupees in emergency relief just after the earthquake ($100), 15,000 rupees received in December to get them through the winter, and eight pieces of corrugated tin.
Khatiwada, the volunteer coordinator, told me that during the last few weeks the government’s paralysis had begun to ease. The Reconstruction Authority had dispatched teams into the hills to assess damage and had announced a payment of 200,000 rupees to each homeless family. It had also pledged to guarantee loans of up to 2.5 million rupees per family so that they could complete construction of their new houses. Payment was contingent upon the families’ choosing from one of fifteen different earthquake-resistant designs formulated by structural engineers. The government had pledged to build 600,000 houses in the next year, but Khatiwada told me that that goal was unreachable. “It will be more like five years,” he told me.
As the reconstruction effort staggers forward, millions of earthquake survivors in the hills face another monsoon season without suitable shelter. And a reprise of the Madhesi blockade—which would set the recovery back further—remains a possibility. Nepal’s new prime minister, K.P. Oli, a former Communist rebel in the 1970s who served a total of fourteen years in prison for beheading landlords in an eastern district, has shown little affinity for the Madhesis. He has reportedly disparaged them as “Biharis,” and angered Indian Prime Minister Modi during a recent meeting in New Delhi by opposing the creation of new provinces that would give the Madhesis a bigger stake in governance. I was told that Prime Minister Oli has close connections to timber and construction interests in one district in the plains near India, and has been unwilling to split the district from his hill province to placate the Madhesi.
As if that weren’t enough to cause concern in Nepal, new data published in the journals Nature Geoscience and Science suggested that the April 2015 earthquake failed to release all the stress along the Great Himalayan Thrust. According to geologists, the next rupture is likely to take place near the resort town of Pokhara, one hundred miles west of Kathmandu. The last earthquake there, in 1505, exceeded 8.5 on the Richter scale. The next is said by experts to be long overdue.
—April 13, 2016