Nepal’s April 25 earthquake killed more than 8,800 people, left more than 20,000 injured, and destroyed at least 600,000 homes. But despite international media coverage focusing on Kathmandu, the devastation was not concentrated on the capital, which escaped the tremor’s most severe destruction despite its vicinity to the epicenter. Rather, Nepal’s poorly developed rural regions were hardest hit.
Why was the suffering greater farther out? Because of state centralization. Nepal’s government has long focused on Kathmandu and ignored the outlying areas, leaving them destitute, neglected, and seriously lacking in the infrastructure needed to withstand a natural disaster. Local governing bodies lack the funding and autonomy to carry out the policies necessary even to lift Nepal’s ultra-poor from subsistence farming, much less fortify them against an earthquake.
Our current research and fieldwork have focused on how centralized political institutions and underdevelopment meant that the earthquake has had a devastating impact on rural Nepal. Rectifying this institutional tilt is vital to preventing future catastrophes.
Nepal’s government: Kathmandu vs. everyone else
Nepal’s centralized governing structure is a relic of the Kathmandu-centered monarchy and oligarchy that lasted two centuries. During this period, no entity could challenge decisions or policies instituted by the capital. Even after Nepal’s transition to democracy in 2006, which followed a popular uprising and civil war against a highly centralized and exclusionary state, the cabinet still controls the appointment of leadership personnel in the bureaucracy, the nation’s budget, and, in conjunction with the National Planning Commission, development schemes for the entire nation.
Centralized electoral institutions also concentrate power in Kathmandu. During parliamentary elections, voters choose in part between competing lists of candidates who are preselected by political parties. This makes many MPs accountable to the party elites who put them on the list rather than to their constituencies.
Moreover, local elections last occurred 13 years ago. Embroiled in civil war and then political transition, the central government simply did not hold elections. This has left district, village, and municipality representatives out of touch and illegitimate. And even if these officials wanted to build up their areas, they don’t have the funding: only 10 percent of tax revenue in Nepal goes to local governments.
Centrally planned development programs are also frequently disconnected from actual needs. Not only do the programs often lack grass-roots insight, local political elites will manipulate funding policies to enrich themselves or enhance their power rather than provide aid to the people. And in the absence of political accountability at the local level, there is little recourse for voters to change the situation.
The central state, trying to run the country from Kathmandu, has historically been slow to respond to crises outside the capital. Basic services still have not been delegated to local governments: Kathmandu attempts to manage health, education, and security for a country of 27 million citizens spread over territory approximately the size of Illinois, with many dispersed across isolated mountain terrain. Rural citizens often must venture to Kathmandu to receive anything beyond basic health services or a high school education, and get very little protection from centrally coordinated security services.
This rural neglect showed after the earthquake. Poverty and underdevelopment in rural Nepal means houses are built by villagers themselves with mud walls and straw roofs— structures that are entirely at the mercy of the earth they stand on.
For instance, Sindhupalchowk, a rural district where half the population lives below the poverty line, saw the complete destruction of 64,000 homes—two-thirds of all the houses in the district. In Gorkha, where 90 percent of the population lived in houses that lacked reinforced roofing, at least half the houses are now uninhabitable. Poorly constructed roads were ravaged and left all but impassable.
Weak transport infrastructure connecting Kathmandu to rural areas slowed relief efforts. Many of the villages affected can be reached only by helicopter, which meant the injured had to be airlifted to Kathmandu hospitals for treatment.
And with minimal local security forces, villages and rural regions had to wait for the national army and police (or even international forces) to get there from the capital for search, rescue, and relief operations.
Kathmandu’s central control created a bottleneck for relief efforts
In Nepal’s centralized government, a few key stakeholders must approve all decisions. That bottleneck slowed efforts at a time when every hour mattered.
The reconstruction process has been slowed even further by disagreements between the international community and national government and between political parties.
Nepal needs both physical and political reconstruction. Yes, buildings and roads should be rebuilt to withstand large seismic events. But the electoral system and constitution must also be rebuilt. Even though the earthquake has catalyzed progress toward federalism, the focus must be to empower local communities, develop rural areas, and enhance political accountability, or Nepal will remain vulnerable.
Nirabh Koirala studies political science and economics at Grinnell College and is a research intern at the Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Geoffrey Macdonald is a consultant at the United States Institute of Peace and a former Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College.