A Year After Nepal's Killer Quake, the Tamangs Continue to Struggle on the Margins

After the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, people from Haku fled for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Children from Haku village in an IDP camp in Kalikasthan, Rasuwa. Credit: Shradha Ghale

Children from Haku village in an IDP camp in Kalikasthan, Rasuwa. Credit: Shradha Ghale

Haku (Nepal): Haku is a hard-to-reach mountain village in Rasuwa, a district north of Kathmandu, with roughly 700 households. The population is predominantly Tamang, an ethnic group that has long suffered brutal exploitation at the hands of the Nepali state. For centuries, the ruling elite of Kathmandu subjected the Tamangs to forced labour, appropriated their land, demeaned their language and culture and violently repressed their attempts at resistance. The long history of oppression has left the Tamangs impoverished and desolate. It was not a mere coincidence that the community which lost the largest number of people in the April 2015 earthquake were the Tamangs.

The quake killed over 60 people and destroyed all the houses in Haku. A quake-triggered landslide wiped out two settlements. A fire broke out in one area and gutted 23 houses. Men, women, children and the elderly fled for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“Some were barefoot when they arrived in Dhunche (the district headquarters),” says Sher Bahadur Gole, a transport worker from Rasuwa. “Others were carrying children on their shoulders. The aftershocks had not stopped. They looked so lost and scared. They had walked for days in that condition, past steep trails and dangerous landslides. My friends and I could not help crying when we saw them.”

Indifferent government

The plight of the families of Haku reveals the government’s attitude towards the marginalised victims of the earthquake. Over the past one year, the displaced families have been shunted from one temporary camp to another. Children, pregnant women, new mothers and the elderly have endured hunger, cold, scorching heat and violent windstorms inside their cramped tarpaulin shacks. The basic relief they received came mostly from NGOs and ad-hoc groups like volunteers, religious organisations and some private companies. All they have received from the government is a few sacks of rice and a meagre cash grant.

Children from Haku in an IDP camp. Credit: Shradha Ghale

Children from Haku in an IDP camp. Credit: Shradha Ghale

People from Haku are now camped at a place from where they could get evicted anytime. Some families are leasing private land, while others have built temporary shelters on public land. Locals around the camp sites complain that the displaced are sullying the environment and using up their resources. In one of the camps, people have been facing severe water shortage since the locals denied them access to a nearby drinking water source. The displaced have to go through daily humiliation. “We have to keep quiet even when kids jeer at us,” says Lachhiman Ghale, a Haku resident camping here. “What can we do? This is not our place, no one wants us here.”

Helplessness leading to stress

In another camp, a young man who lost his wife and home in the quake committed suicide last month. His neighbours think the loss and trauma, the hardships of camp life and the uncertainty about the future had made life unbearable for him. Many others are also being pushed to the edge of despair. “My mother is worried that my brother might also kill himself,” says Sunita Tamang, who lost several members of her family in the disaster. “My brother’s wife was nine months pregnant when the earthquake struck. She had a housemaid’s job lined up in Israel and was meant to leave the country soon after her delivery. But the quake killed her, her unborn child and her two-year-old daughter. Now my brother is all alone. He hasn’t spoken much since the earthquake.”

Excluded from local power structures, the people from Haku have not even received private funds raised in their name. According to them, a Korean company that is building a 216 megawatt hydropower plant in Haku had raised about Rs. 4 crore for the quake-affected families in the village. Some of them claim the hydropower project owes the Haku community because the main cause of landslides in the village is blasting and tunnelling for the project. The displaced families had thought the Korean donation would help them fulfil their greatest priority – to buy land for resettlement. But all they received was a 30 kg sack of rice and two bundles of corrugated zinc sheets for each household. Meanwhile, local authorities claim the money was spent to provide relief and services in other areas in the district.

“That’s not true,” says Bam Bahadur Tamang, a community leader of Haku and a former Maoist rebel. “Political parties divided the money among themselves. Our people have been cheated again.” The displaced families in his camp rejected the rice and zinc sheets in protest. Nothing came of it. They continue to live in shacks with flimsy tarpaulin sheets for walls.

Six months after the earthquake, a crowded bus veered off a mountain road in Rasuwa, killing 37 people. Several survivors died later or suffered critical injuries. One of them was Savadol Tamang, a young mother of three who was on her way to the district headquarters to register the death of her husband, a porter who was buried in a quake-triggered avalanche in the trekking region of Langtang. She died on the spot, along with her infant. The other was Buddhi Tamang, a community leader of Haku who had been tirelessly working on behalf of his fellow displaced survivors. The accident made a few headlines and that was all. Those left behind had no choice but to pick up the pieces and move on.

No help from government

Haku is just one example. All across the affected districts, survivors have been left to fend for themselves. They are trying to cobble together shelters with material retrieved from the rubble of their homes. Local community leaders have been appealing to individuals and organisations for support to rebuild schools, health posts and drinking water supply systems. Some displaced communities are struggling to get loans to buy land for resettlement. Others are battling the threat of eviction.

All this time, the role of ruling parties has been to maintain a stranglehold on power and resources. First they came up with their notorious “one-door policy”. They wanted all relief to be channeled through local government offices even though the authorities lacked the capacity to reach the thousands of hungry survivors who were living under the open sky. These government offices are filled with high-caste men who perceive marginalised groups like the Tamangs as backward and lesser beings. Second, using the earthquake as an excuse, the government rammed through a “fast-tracked” constitution that broke some of the major promises made to marginalised groups. When the Madhesis rose in protest, the state became occupied with killing and maiming them on the one hand and defending its action on the other. The killing did not stop until protesters blocked the border with India’s support. The blockade caused a severe shortage of fuel and other essentials. Contrary to the claims of “nationalists,” the blockade was hardly the cause behind the state’s inaction and apathy towards quake survivors. The government had done little before the four-month blockade. Nor has it done much since the blockade ended.

Nine months after the earthquake, following extended political wrangling, the National Reconstruction Authority finally got in full shape. The dispute was not over reconstruction plans or policy matters but over which party would control the billions of dollars pledged by the international donors. The hardest-hit communities, who have the most legitimate claim to the funds, have no representation in the body. Led entirely by high-caste men, the authority is removed from the concerns of marginalised victims. For instance, people from Haku still don’t know if or when they will receive the Rs. 2 lakh promised by the government. The amount is not enough to build a house. If the money comes, they will receive it in three instalments, but only after meeting numerous conditions at each stage. Given their lack of political connections or access to bureaucracy, the displaced families will have a difficult time fulfilling those conditions.

“If we receive Rs. 2 lakh at one time instead of three instalments, we can pool the money and buy some land,” says Bam Bahadur. “But I don’t know how we’ll start rebuilding with 50,000 rupees when we don’t even have any land to build on. Our village doesn’t exist anymore. Where should we go? What should we do?”

Shradha Ghale currently works at Martin Chautari, a research and policy institute in Kathmandu.