25 October, 2020

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Classquake: What The Global Media Missed In Nepal Earthquake Coverage

By Andrew Nelson

Dr. Andrew Nelson

Dr. Andrew Nelson

As the world comes to terms with Nepal’s earthquake and media outlets start shifting their gaze elsewhere, it is worth analyzing how the global English media coverage covered the disaster – and what they missed. This was a ‘classquake’ as much as a natural disaster, a point missed amid the dramatic descriptions and heart-rending videos.

Initially, attention was focused solely on Nepal’s recognizable symbols of Kathmandu’s world heritage sites and Mt. Everest base camp, leaving several commentators on twitter to criticize the media for its ‘orientalist gaze’ and ‘disaster porn’ while under-reporting where the devastation was more extensive – rural Nepal.

The attention to Kathmandu valley and Everest was as much a product of orientalism, that is, the West’s patronizing or romanticized perceptions of the “East,” as it was a reflection of disconnect between the capital and the (non-mountaineering) hinterland.

As attention turned from immediate description to questions of causation, reporters were quick to point out, correctly, that the earthquake was not unexpected, but rather a ‘nightmare waiting to happen.’

Since it is ‘buildings that kill people not earthquakes,’ the question became why was Nepal unprepared?

Unlike Haiti, no one evoked supernatural curses or blamed ‘progress-resistant cultural influences,’ although Sumnina Udas of CNN claimed that simply ‘no one believed it would happen.’

For most commentators, however, it was not disbelief in expert predictions that stalled preparation, but rather poverty and politics.

In these analyses, Nepal is imagined as an undifferentiated mass of poverty-stricken people who must endure the country’s other disaster, namely the state’s last 24 years of unstable governments, Maoist insurgency, royal massacre, and unproductive constitution writing process.

NepalSurya Subedi, a professor of international law writing for CNN described a “country ruined by political mismanagement.” Political instability produces a weak state unable to plan and manage its cities, and enforce its building codes, which in turn leaves people to fend for themselves in times of disaster, argued Rishi Iyengar in Time magazine.

While there is no doubt that poverty and political instability are central factors in this disaster, the media’s emphasis on these factors obscures what this earthquake teaches us about structural inequality.

As the geographer Neil Smith reminded us after Hurricane Katrina, disasters “deepen and erode the ruts of social difference they encounter.” In the case of Kathmandu, taking account for which buildings and neighborhoods were left standing and which were not exposes the already established ruts of social disparity. Moreover, one can easily expect the earthquake’s aftermath to exacerbate inequality.

Jason Burke’s piece in the Guardian, for one, did point to the shared poverty of victims of the quake. There remains a stark contrast between the inhabitants of flattened houses and those in residences still standing. Whether in Kathmandu valley or the villages of the hills and mountains, the older houses consisting of mud mortar, bricks, and timber posts crumbled whereas the newer buildings made of reinforced concrete, cement plaster, and steel pillars by and large withstood the jolts. Living in those fragile mud houses are the rural poor, and the indigenous Newar and recent rural-to-urban migrants who cannot afford to rent or buy new houses outside of the congested urban cores or peripheral agro-towns of Kathmandu valley. In the words of journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, it “was a very class-conscious earthquake.”

To understand the division between rich and poor houses in Nepal requires more than passing references to endemic poverty and cursory summaries of the country’s recent political history. In my research on Kathmandu urbanization, Nepal’s economic history is revealing of contemporary disparities. Mahesh Chandra Regmi’s book Thatched Huts and Stucco Palaces identified the roots of Nepal’s inequality in the land policies of the Rana state (1846-1951). The palace-residing Rana aristocrats gifted land to politically loyal nobles, who in turn, became landlords to the tenant cultivators living in huts. The palaces were modelled after European neo-classical architecture brought to South Asia by the British. In exchange for ‘independence’, the Nepal state gave considerable economic control and people (Gorkha soldiers) to the Raj, which established a long-standing dependency on colonial and independent India.

The land reforms and urban planning of post-Rana Nepal (1950-1990) were unable to compete with soaring property prices produced through an unregulated market and massive migration into the capital and Tarai lowlands. While the hill districts remained neglected, the selective benefits of the privatized garment, tourism, development and education industries remained limited to the capital city. Consequently, a Kathmandu middle class emerged in the 1970s desiring the ‘modern’ houses of reinforced concrete outside of the urban core.

The ensuing decades of frequent political shifts and Maoist insurgency only contributed to the market’s dominance over social needs. Despite the government’s promises of development to mitigate the growing popularity of Maoists, neo-liberal policies and violence led to capital flight by foreign garment companies, not to mention the country’s growing foreign debt.

Financed by a burgeoning private banking and real estate industry, urban middle and upper classes have flocked to high-rise apartments, luxurious housing colonies and compounds in the suburbs. In turn, the middle classes able to build multi-story concrete houses (usually starting at $60,000 USD in construction costs) have become the new landlords as they inhabit the top floors of their homes while earning income by renting out the bottom floors.

Meanwhile, Nepal’s laboring classes have increasingly left Nepal for employment opportunities in Gulf countries, India, Malaysia, and East Asia. As a result, rural areas are often left with declining agricultural production and few young men.

Nepal’s national building code is a perfect example of growing disparity between Nepal’s rich and poor classes. Drafted in 1994, it was not enacted for nine years, until 2003. As of Saturday’s quake, only three (Kathmandu, Patan, Dharan) of Nepal’s 58 municipalities had adopted the code as mandatory in the house-building permit process.

I do not doubt that corruption and party infighting played a major role in the delay and incomplete implementation of the code, but we should also consider how growing real estate and construction industries benefit from an ineffective code. A lack of regulation allows companies to market earthquake safety as a selling point rather than a requirement. Worse yet are the developers who promise code compliance to homeowners, but then bribe inspectors to take cost-saving short cuts.

Those who could afford the suburban compounds, high-rises and housing colonies could also afford electricity generators, private water supply, and most importantly, builders trained in earthquake-preventative construction. In last week’s earthquake, even those in less secure reinforced concrete structures were far better off than those in mud masonry houses. The concrete buildings that fell tended to be in the denser and poorer neighborhoods, such as the hotels of Gongabu catering to migrant laborers waiting to go abroad.

As Nepal rebuilds, it will be necessary to ensure that preventative building practices are followed not only in the elite residences of Kathmandu, but throughout the country. Thinking beyond Nepal to the next ‘disaster,’ it will also be critical for global media to draw attention to the structural inequalities at the core of disasters.

*Andrew Nelson is a Lecturer of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. He can be contacted at andrew.nelson@unt.edu

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    The CNN and BBC gave good video evidence of the terrible damage to buildings and loss/injuries of persons.
    Nepal has a custom of animal sacrifice.

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    Dr. Nelson

    Nepal has an average national IQ of 78 which is on the borderline of mental retardation with a functional mental age of around 12 years. I live in Sri Lanka which has a national average IQ of 79 so I know what it is like to be mentally retarded and to live in a country where most of the people and especially the political leaders and government administrators are mentally retarded. In such a context when a person raises the question why was Nepal unprepared then such a person probably has an IQ even lower than 78!It is impossible to understand such incomprehension coming from someone who is supposedly a doctor.

    You see Dr. Nelson we have no means of stopping or preventing earthquakes. Earth quakes from time to time because that is the nature and behavior of earth. The only thing to be done is to ensure that human habitat is located in areas that are not affected when earth does quake. The problem is compounded by the living nature of the planet with its moving tectonic plates driven by convection within its plastic mantle upon which these relatively thin plates float. This means that new areas may be affected when earth quakes and scientists now say that Sri Lanka which was safe when earth quaked may now be likely to experience the earth quake to the level of five on the richter scale. What would you like us to do? Tear down all out habitat and re build with earth quake prone structures? Who will foot the bill? Will the GFDRR come forward to help bear the cost?

    The question is not why Nepal was unprepared but why the UN was unprepared even after it had to deal with the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 when five million people were left exposed to the elements with winter approaching. At that time the UNO stood by helplessly pleading for one million all weather five person tents to house these people in. The UNO did not understand that one million tents cannot be sourced or manufactured within twenty four hours or a week or a month. So what happened to the hapless Five million? Your guess is as good as mine. They simply faded off the news and went into oblivion. Today the UNO is still not in possession of even the five hundred thousand all weather five person tents required by the people of Nepal. Why is this.?

    The UNO is accountable to no one. It cannot be officially contacted. Its general secretary has no email ID in the public domain. It does not accept mail.”The complex has a street address of United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY 10017, USA. For security reasons, all mail sent to this address is sterilized, so items that may be degraded can be sent by courier”. It appears to be a ridiculous fraud.

    If you can get this message across to the monkeys in charge please do so and let us see if they do anything about it otherwise it will be unprepared tomorrow as well when earths quaking damages human habitat somewhere else:

    “Please ensure that a minimum of five million (5,000,000) all weather five person tents are manufactured immediately and stockpiled close to airbases from where they can be loaded onto aircraft and flown to locations where they are required at short notice.

    The manufacture of these tents may be contracted to manufacturers around the world in small quantities so as to distribute the drawdown of resources and avoid disrupting the commercial operations of the manufacturers and creating corruption generating non market-based dependencies.

    Manufacture will be to standardized specifications, quality and production processes.

    The species has the resources as well as the functional capacity to do this and is hereby formally requested to accomplish this task immediately and without delay.

    The attention of the species is drawn to the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 where one million (1,000,000) such tents were required but were not available. Five hundred thousand (500,000) such tents are now required in Nepal.

    The failure or inability or unwillingness of the species to learn from the Kashmir earthquake and prepare a stockpile of at least five million (5,000,000) tents has been noted.

    Please ensure that this situation does not continue.”
    Now about the class consciousness of earth. It is not. It just quakes. What is needed is money. There is no point in bringing in regulations to govern the construction of human habitat unless the humans who construct their habitat have the wealth to comply with your fine regulations. With an average national IQ of 78 Nepal is not going to solve this one and cannot be expected to. The UNO on the other hand which employs the “Best brains in the world” at stupendous salaries and perks is the organization that can take on the task. So over to Banky Moon.

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      Crazyoldman,

      That was a wonderful comment. Hats off to you!

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    What happened in Nepal has been attributed to many things.
    Having seen the amount of sin committed at one of their ‘religious’ festivals in the name of a Goddess I shall not mention here due to retribution, I am not surprised that it has all but finally come back to bite them at the very least.

    The murderous ‘Gandhimai’ festival takes place once in every 5 years in the name of securing good health, wealth and prosperity to the natives who rather ignorantly and foolishly of course, turn up in the thousands to witness arguably one of the World’s most goriest of animal abuse / slaughter performed for the same.

    Keeping it short and simple, what one does as a person, group or nation on the whole comes back in the form of Karma and dare I say that this was at least one of the cases here. A curse of sorts for all those thousands of innocent buffaloes, bulls, cows and many other animals hacked without mercy (many of whom are still alive only to be found out and chopped up again by these sinners / sadists) is fitting of the punishment meted out.

    I strongly suggest educating yourselves but wish to warn you of some very graphic pictures and videos that ought to follow. As they say viewer discretion is advised. Refer : ‘Gandhimai’

    Buddhism – a philosophy, a mere way of simple ethical living would not condone such barbarism to be carried out in it’s name.

    My two cents worth.

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