By 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?
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.
Surya 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 firstname.lastname@example.org