Portrait of the idealist as a post-quake volunteer

 Portrait of the idealist as a post-quake volunteer

September 30, 2015
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Kamal Bhatta is a filmmaker, actor, writer and a social activist, residing in Kathmandu. His film production company name Sanghari, means friends in the Tharu language (spoken in western Nepal) His aim for the company is to enable cohesion of marginalized people through short films, documentaries and feature films. ‘Honestly speaking, all human beings in this universe are different from each other, that’s why the world is colorful’, he tells me.

His recent short film as script-writer and director, Chokhaunee (Purification) won a Special Mention at the 2014 Dhaka International Film Festival. Some Nepalese often recognise him for his street plays, as well as for feature films like Dravya, Sadanga & Dasdhunga. I asked him – as a film maker, what did he want his audience to relate to? His reply, ‘I want my audience to see and feel every universal emotion, compassion, pain, suffering, sorrow and discrimination in our society. Because I feel, as a human being, we are interconnected by these emotions and they touch your soul, which force you to think and relate to others.’

I met Kamal during the post-quake aftershocks in late April. Maybe I didn’t expect a young person helping in the field, to be such a profoundly good listener, but his insights into the Nepalese national character are worth reminding every local about.

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He feels that the Nepalese have resilience, altruism and affection historically, but of late were losing core values, for personal gains. This comes up, more often than not, in moments of catastrophe, like the earthquake. “I was surprised to see city people rushing to rescue those trapped under the rubble, risking their own lives. Donating in cash and kind to build shelters for the earthquake affected communities in urban and rural areas. In rural areas too, people scavenged for food and material to provide not just for their family members but others in the community.” As someone out there myself, I agreed mostly with his observations. But ask him what happens, when life returns to normal? “People lost track of their values, were misled and overwhelmed by the relief material. Made them more donor-dependent and lose self-belief and faith in their own people. The donor and relief agencies, in their unhealthy competition to promote their own contribution were factors too, in negatively affecting the Nepali people.”

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Any mistakes we could all learn from, I probe? “This dependency has subsided now but we certainly made many mistakes. We panicked while distributing and donating to the real victims; we were so disorganized that we did not even think of contacting government agencies in charge of relief. We coordinated less but ranted more against government inaction and lack of capacity on social media, without prior knowledge of the government’s policy to facilitate the donor agencies. The disorganized relief distribution resulted in people, who had road access, getting relief material quickly and abundantly. But those in remote places or those socially marginalized got little or none at all, initially”.

His observations may give the international aid response something to think about too. “While the international community was blaming the government for not doing enough, their offices on the ground were running amok without coordination, without sharing of information among themselves or with the District Disaster Relief Committee, responsible for facilitating relief. Several international agencies had booked 20-30 areas for relief work, with the Chief District Officers of the corresponding earthquake affected districts. They began to raise funds after this booking. It was understandable that they could not raise as much funds as they had expected or that they were burdened financially, by the glaring number of expat experts who landed in Nepal. Several such took, $5000 a day chopper rides to scan the affected area or to deliver relief. It was also understandable that most of the earthquake affected areas were difficult to access.

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What was not OK was that they simply forgot to inform the government agencies that they were unable to provide relief to all the 20-30 areas they had booked and instead could only afford, to help, say eight such. This particular feeding frenzy along with the lack of decency in real-time communication, left other agencies without a chance to reach the unreached. Resulting in areas having to go without relief for months. Had it not been for the stellar compassion and commitment of our volunteers, these communities would still be out of coverage area.

Honestly, I really don’t want to relive the traumatic event,” says Kamal with a laugh, “but we must be strategic in addressing vulnerability issues from now on. Understanding them by geography, sex and age. Nurturing capacities to deal with psychological trauma. Making conscious attempts to protect vulnerability to child/human trafficking, along with an awareness that children, senior citizens, pregnant women, lactating mothers, the disabled and geographically marginalized people need special focus. We certainly have to acknowledge the existing social system and first reach out to the marginalized population. For many volunteers, their biggest learning has been not to rush only to accessible areas. And why so many selfies of relief distribution, when the affected receiving relief is really a Human Rights issue and not charity? We panicked this time and added more psychological trauma by spreading non validated news on social media.”

I dig deeper, asking him, if the Nepalese had a first-hand opportunity post the calamity, to believe that EVERY NEPALI IS EQUAL,” something our Constitution now enshrines. His response – “The aftermath of the April earthquake, to some extent, generated a feeling of equality when people lived under the open sky sharing shelters, both in rural and urban areas, together. Fearing more aftershocks, they felt dispensable together. Irrespective of their social status or religion, the Nepalese had come together to help and had indeed risked their own lives to reach the marginalized. In a way, this feeling of selflessness, borders on a sense of equality, although helping is defined as physical assistance and not an emotional affair. But once people in urban areas, went back and continued to fight for their share of food and relief material, meant for the actually displaced, this feeling of equality slowly subsided and ultimately vanished”.

This is perhaps the difference between a human response to when life is at stake and when it isn’t. But my last query to him was about how the excluded, can move forward. “First of all, they shouldn’t feel they are left out or excluded from society. They have to realize that they are only excluded from the state system. Change is inevitable, raising their own voices against discrimination is a process which means stepping aside from the constant negativity of feeling unequal. Using their historical or geographical isolation to unite to making inclusion their common goal. The country is quite simply incomplete without them.”

Over our many conversations, I began to grasp the strands which sometimes compete against each other. Yet can also contribute to the value of cherishing social harmony. Which way would Nepal go, given the histories of violence, internecine squabbles and making the excluded heard through the Constitution-making exercise?

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