The epicentre of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake was located in the district of Gorkha, west of Kathmandu. The initial rupture was followed by a series of aftershocks, including a major 7.3 magnitude tremor on 12 May with an epicentre in Dolakha district. According to the national Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction Portal, the earthquakes killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, leaving almost 22,000 people injured and an estimated 3.5 million homeless. The government officially declared that 35 of Nepal’s 75 districts were ‘earthquake-affected’, of which 14 were classified ‘most- affected’, primarily in the Central Development Region surrounding Kathmandu.
Despite their common representation as a ‘national tragedy’, the earthquakes themselves and the subsequent earthquake politics have in fact been unevenly distributed across Nepal and across socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Historical patterns of structural inequality left some groups far more vulnerable than others. The areas of greatest need were predominantly in the districts, not in Kathmandu. Most casualties occurred within the boundaries of what has sometimes been proposed as the state of Tamsaling or Tambasaling, where the Tamang ethnic group represents the demographic majority. The earthquakes had relatively limited effects in the southern plains of the Tarai or the Mid-Western and Far-Western Development Regions.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake it soon became clear that the ability of victims to secure either state and non-state aid was shaped by factors that were not solely humanitarian, but also followed differential patterns of political and geographic access and longstanding socio-spatial exclusion. Different government institutions responded in different ways. Some disaster response mechanisms were activated and some were not. Accounts of the first few days following the earthquake demonstrate both a lack of official capacity and an atmosphere of confusion among the political class. Not known for its efficiency on the best of days, Nepal’s government was unable to mount a quick, efficient and centralised rescue, relief and recovery operation.
These general failures were punctuated by sporadic but admirable efforts made by a handful of individual leaders, as well as an outpouring of volunteer initiatives.
As expected, within the first 48 hours a slew of international institutions and humanitarian organisations arrived in Nepal to provide support of all kinds and qualities. In an attempt to ensure uniform coverage, the government sought to coordinate relief distribution through a ‘one door’ policy via the District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC). This approach was in part a reaction to excessive relief, overcrowding, and double or even triple coverage in highly visible and more accessible areas.
But these well-intentioned efforts to seize the reins of the relief effort drew flak as concerns over political bias began to surface. Problems were especially apparent at the local level where, in the absence of elected officials, the spectre of the ‘All-Party Mechanism’ (APM) was revived in many areas as a conduit to distribute relief. APMs had previously been scrapped as structures to administer local governance having been widely discredited as partisan [see article on local governance, p.91]. But as they now began to re-exert their influence at both the DDRC and in the villages, coordination of post-earthquake relief became a major political issue, and certain political leaders were found to be channelling materials toward their political bases, often along party lines.
The frequent aftershocks drove everyone outside. As time passed, some returned to intact houses, while others had no choice but to live in the temporary shelters. Concerns about landslides during the monsoon brought more and more people into camps for internally displaced persons, which became sources of internal tension and discrimination. There were reports of Dalit (‘low caste’) families being marginalised from major camp areas as well as of harassment of women. As the weeks dragged on, the initial feelings of unity and impartiality that had characterised the immediate aftermath of the earthquake gave way to partisanship and political positioning, and the ‘politics of recognition’ intensified during a shift in competition for shelter – from plastic tarpaulin to corrugated galvanised iron.