I have known Pukar for almost eight years, and we went through three years of studying Bachelors of Arts in Social Work together. Although he became active in Bibeksheel after completing his studies, he always showed a certain kind of political aspiration that was uncommon in his peers (including myself). So when we met to sit down after a month of the colossal disaster and what followed – an upsurge of young people getting their hands dirty, all that sweat and all that grim, to help “rebuild Nepal” as part of the post-earthquake disaster response – we both could feel something had shifted.
Bibeksheel Nepali, a political party consisting of young people, has been able to carry out relief effort in all 17 affected districts – their relief including food, tarpaulins, medical support, and initial need assessment – in a short span of time. Their group has also been able to garner a lot of support their members and supporters both outside and inside Nepal along with a large number of young volunteers. They have been receiving funding from their international committee members who have gone to study abroad but their villages have been affected. Pukar believes that they were able to receive such a huge amount of support because they have actually gone to the victims to deliver relief instead of handing it over to some other team or organization.
Dipti: How did the relief effort start for you and your group?
Pukar: Before the earthquake of April 25th, we had actually created a disaster management protocol through trainings conducted by disaster experts because there had been predictions of earthquake. We knew that preparedness was a huge part of leadership. What we had planned was wherever we are when a disaster occurs, the first priority was to make sure that we and our families are safe and then go the nearest hospital (in this case, Teaching Hospital in Maharajgunj). This was because in any disaster scenario, the hospital gets hit the first – there is a lot of casualties that the hospitals have to bear the brunt and doctors as well as nurses undergo a lot of pressure. We had actually estimated death of 1 Lakh people.
With 40 minutes, we started a help desk. We were 10-15 people in the beginning. There were dead bodies lying around so our volunteers carried the bodies, cleaned up the bodies, took their photos for identification. We created a list of dead bodies, and injured people. We wanted to bridge that gap.
We were able to collect donations right there at the moment and we were able to get a lot of generous support. So we were able to buy gloves and masks. Initially, the doctors, nurses and even police were not willing to carry the dead bodies.
Dipti: How has your or your group’s interaction been like with formally existing mechanisms like the army, police, and government institutions or bodies throughout the relief effort?
Pukar: What happened is our first relief effort was in Arupokhari in Gorkha and we were able to take relief materials under “personal effort”. If what we were providing had to go through some channel of the government, I fear it would have not reached them yet. The local bodies were not active during this period and all the different political parties focused on creating an all-party mechanism instead of acting on the immediate relief process. If we had entered this process, we may not have been able to provide relief for weeks.
We would have to store our materials in the DDC (District Development Committee) office. We even saw four trucks of relief materials go inside but only a small tracker came out with minimal materials. The distribution channel of the government was not effective and confident. For example, there are places A, B, C, and D. If we want to go to area D with our relief materials, the local people of A, B, and C would not allow us to do so because they would demand the relief materials even if they were not needy.
The police and the army (security forces) actually helped us overcome these barriers and they helped us reach these areas. But that was not the case with the local bodies because of their political affiliations.
Dipti: So some of the citizen-driven initiatives that had gone to different places with relief materials also had to face similar problems?
Pukar: Yes. It was very difficult for them to actually take relief materials to the intended places in the absence of these mechanisms. It was also difficult for local non-profit organizations (NGOs) because there is a certain expectation that these organizations are funded by bigger international donor organizations and the affected people expected relief materials to be distributed equally rather than through need assessment. In Listikot VDC, Sindhupalchowk, we had gone with almost 50 volunteers so this was a huge attempt but we had to actually give 10-20 sacks of rice in each village before we actually reached there otherwise, we would not have been allowed to go there at all!
Maybe because of frustration, some people were drunk and blocked our way. They would want to stop us and claim over the materials.
Dipti: What is one of the most significant memory of your first relief work (at Gorkha)?
Pukar: The first thing I felt was the moment the people there saw trucks full of relief materials, there was a sense of “Oh, now we are going to be able to eat. Help has finally arrived.” written all over their faces. But when they found out that it was through a personal effort and that we would only distribute after assessing the need, there was chaos. Some people, who seem to have gotten some amount of food already because they were either in a powerful position or would voice out, actually told us to take it back if it wasn’t going to be distributed equally.
We had gone there after such hardship. We were 8-10 people and we had reached after 3 days of the earthquake. So, it took us almost 2-3 hours to sit down with the villagers and explain. We were very scientific about the way we distributed the relief material; we collected the number of households, the extent of damage, and then give it to the most needy ones. Then people became happy, some people even cried. We were able to reach there before the government did. We were there till late night and only returned after all that was over.
Dipti: What was your impression of already existing mechanisms like youth clubs and women’s group in the affected areas? Had they started to self-organize?
Pukar: During our initial visit which was right after 2-3 days of the earthquake, they had not begun to self organize. It was havoc. Everyone was confused, and frustrated. They were waiting for relief. People were still in trauma. They were focused on how much relief came their way. But during our second assessment visit after two weeks, they had started to do build their houses on their own and saw no point in waiting for the government.
They had also begun to manage relief materials that came through organizations like Save The Children, who had sent a lot of materials, and there was a sense of unity around. But as you know, there aren’t many young people in villages nowadays. But still, they had started to redirect relief materials to places and communities where it hadn’t reached.
Dipti: Have you guys coordinated with other relief teams? What has the experience been like?
Pukar: Initially, we did. But later, as they started to know that Bibeksheel is actually a political party, some youths who did not want to be associated with a political party started to work independently. They are still working. But if this had been a more coordinated effort, it would have been definitely effective. Being a political party, there are certain pros and cons. We were able to work independently without any hassle but in the long-term, the nature of our organizations may be something that not everyone wants to be a part of. But given that, we were able to work with a lot of international media, government officials, and medical teams from Bangladesh, India, the USA, and Canada. Even those who had sent money to big organizations came to us because they realized that the needy people were still not receiving much so they accompanied us to different places like Rasuwa, Okhaldhunga, Sindhupalchowk, and so on by combining both our resources and efforts.
Secondly, I don’t know what to call it but these foreign aid organizations who have established local connections were not doing a great job at need assessment. For example, they were reaching to these villages after 15-16 days and yet they were giving things like bath liquid, detergent, and so on. We have actually recorded all of this. The people who carry out these assessments live in the central area of the affected area in expensive hotels so there is so much overhead costs which get added to the “aid” that has been provided in relief.
There is a lot of politics in relief because there is now a trend that if the local leader/politician is able to take most relief to his/her village, then that person is likely to garner more political support.
Dipti: Have you received any kind of negative feedback on the work you are doing because Bibeksheel is also essentially a political party?
Pukar: Yes but to be very honest, during our relief efforts, we actually did not have any time to explain about our party to the people. That was the last thing on our priorities. We would go to these areas, distribute relief, and head back to another affected area. Some people actually told us that we should have taken leaflets about our party because this was an opportunity for us to publicize our party but although we are a political party, the volunteers and people who were supporting this relief team were not affiliated with our group. We have to keep that in mind. This was not of a political nature, it was more about selfless service. Essentially, politics is service. If our effort was of a political motive, we would have focused within Kathmandu but we prioritized unreached, inaccessible places because they were the most needy.
Dipti: You mention this is an immediate relief effort and therefore, temporary in nature. Is there a longer-term vision that Bibeksheel Nepali is keen on adopting or even you as an individual? Or will this effort stop after a certain time.
Pukar: Bibeksheel has been working on a protocol so it was a very organized effort. We had divided roles amongst our teams. And we will not stop this. We have actually come up with a 5R strategy – Rescue, Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, and Resurgence. We are coming to the end of relief work because the government has already started to provide financial support for rebuilding houses. Our focus now is to hold the government accountable. We want to become watchdogs.
We want to help strengthen the government mechanism along with our own political activity. This will continue until the 5R strategy is complete.
Dipti: How long do you think it will take?
Pukar: It will take at least 2-3 years to reach a stable environment where health institutions, schools, and government offices start to function fully. So this can actually go long-term.
Our observation is that unless the government is made accountable, there is a huge possibility of corruption with the relief aid money. It has been almost a month and there hasn’t even been meetings at local level between VDC secretaries and CDO officials about this. So for three weeks, no relief work was monitored or recorded by the government. There is A Team in our group which will be responsible for this task. We will probably have 2 people assigned to each affected district.
Dipti: You mentioned earlier that if you had the time to reflect, you would actually like to record these reflections. So what has actually been some of the learning opportunities for you throughout this?
Pukar: We have to be prepared. There has to be a plan even if it takes some time. If we had just gone randomly then it would not have been effective. Another thing is, instead of considering the government weak, we need to strengthen the government mechanism. That should have been the role of international media as well.
We have even received media coverage on how where the government hasn’t reached, Bibeksheel has reached. But our intention is to strengthen government. Only then can we all be effective.
Dipti: Can you think about a moment that has struck you deeply?
Pukar: In the beginning, we carried dead bodies and we were trying to put up brave faces. After a while, all this became saturated – all that information of casualties, deaths, and loss stopped affecting us. But during our post-relief assessment, in Gorkha, we went to a village where Muslim community lived. I met a young kid who spread out his hands and said “राहत” (relief). That was a moment that I will never forget because I started to question about whether this whole relief process is going to render us all dependent on aid again…
But the youths, have been so enthusiastic and active. Now they have to hold the government accountable. That should be our focus.
Dipti: Do you think there is something that you would do differently?
Pukar: One thing that I definitely think is coordination – if we had been a bit more better can coordinating with other relief efforts, perhaps we would have been able to have a better reach with the relief.
Dipti: Is there anything that you would like to add to our conversation?
Pukar: We have had a lot of people who instead of approaching the government have approached us for relief and coordination. This actually puts a big question mark towards the political parties who have such deeper local networks and yet failed to be useful during the time of disaster. Now is the time to hold these political parties accountable. There is a need to be a bit more reflexive and critical of our political culture.
We ended our conversation on a hopeful note where Pukar called for the youths to change their perception about politics because without interacting with the government, this whole process of citizen-driven initiative can become a mere immediate relief project and not a long-term project of government accountability. For him, there is a potential for these initiatives to become more than relief work and transform the political culture of Nepal.
Photo Credit: Used from Pukar Bam’s Facebook Page with Permission