Nepal’s Bureaucracy Is Blamed as Earthquake Relief Supplies Pile Up
By GARDINER HARRIS, KATHMANDU: Relief supplies for earthquake victims have been piling up at the airport and in warehouses here because of bureaucratic interference by Nepalese authorities who insist that standard customs inspections and other procedures be followed, even in an emergency, officials with Western governments and aid organizations said on Sunday.
“The bottleneck was the fact that the bureaucratic procedures were just so heavy,” Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations resident coordinator, said in an interview. “So many layers of government and so many departments involved, so many different line ministries involved. We don’t need goods sitting in Kathmandu warehouses. We don’t need goods sitting at the airport. We need them up in the affected areas.”
The United States ambassador to Nepal, Peter W. Bodde, said he had spoken to Nepal’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, about the issue and “he assured me that all the red tape will be stopped.” Also Sunday, three survivors were pulled from rubble in the Sindhupalchok District, an especially hard-hit and largely rural area north of Kathmandu.
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Officials of aid organizations and Western governments have been grumbling about the Nepalese government since the earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.8, struck the country on April 25, killing more than 7,000 people. Early complaints said the government had all but disappeared, a criticism that even top officials here acknowledge was fair.
“Everyone was panicked, everything was closed, and we all tried to save our own lives,” Purna Bahadur Khadka, joint general secretary of the governing Nepali Congress, said in an interview at the prime minister’s official residence. “And some critics can say there was no proper coordination for the first two days.”
But sometime over the past week, the government revived, Mr. Khadka said. And that is when, Western aid officials say, government officials began insisting that a list of rules must be followed, even for emergency relief supplies.
Mr. Bodde said it was a problem that the United States intended to help fix, as a huge C-17 transport plane unloaded a UH-17 helicopter and, separately, four Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft flew into Nepal on Sunday to help carry supplies from Kathmandu to devastated rural areas.
“That’s why we’re here today,” Mr. Bodde said as the C-17 rolled to a stop.
But even that help had been delayed, according to Marine Lt. Col Edward Powers, the helicopter pilot.
“We’ve been sitting on a ramp in Okinawa for the last 72 hours,” waiting for permission to land at Kathmandu, Colonel Powers said at the airport.
Minendra Rijal, the minister for information and communication and the government’s official spokesman, denied that the government had slowed any delivery of aid.
“The accusations are false,” Mr. Rijal said in a telephone interview. “It would be better if the U.N. involved itself more in its duties rather than engaging in criticizing the government.”
Yet Mr. McGoldrick said that delays were occurring not only at the Kathmandu airport but at border crossings with India and even at district headquarters across the country, and Nepalese journalists have quoted customs officials at the Indian border crossings as affirming that relief supplies needed to “go through strict inspections.”
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Mr. McGoldrick said that while the Nepalese government had loosened its requirements in the past day, time was essential.
“Planting season is six weeks away, and if you miss that you’ll need to deliver food aid for another three months,” he said. “The monsoon is coming in eight weeks. So it’s very precarious.”
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District officials said in a series of interviews that food and tents had yet to reach some remote villages because of transportation problems, not bureaucracy.
“The food supply is O.K. in the villages surrounding district headquarters, but we have not yet been able to make any normal supply in remoter parts of the districts,” said Basudev Ghimire, the chief district officer of Dhading District.
Anil Kumar Thakur, the chief district officer of Bhaktapur District, said bureaucratic requirements had prevented most distributions of cash under a plan to compensate families who suffered deaths.
“Although we have already started to distribute cash relief, it is not going well,” Mr. Thakur added. “It requires verification letters from police and other documents that establishes relations with the deceased one.”
The bureaucracy and political machinery in Nepal are unusually independent of each other, which has mostly been a good thing over the past 10 years as the political process has been paralyzed by squabbling. Bureaucracy officials, however, take their jobs very seriously, and some might fear that if they do not document all aid distributions, they could later face accusations that they kept the goods for themselves.
Outside Kathmandu, more victims of the earthquake were still being discovered. In the Langtang Valley in the northern Rasuwa District, according to Reuters, a police team found the bodies of about 50 people, including some foreigners, on a popular trekking route.
Also Sunday, civil aviation authorities announced that they had closed the Kathmandu airport to the largest jets, or those weighing more than 196 metric tons, for fear they could damage the runways.
“We feared that the possible damage of our only international airport would invite further problems in the post-quake scenario, so the landing of heavy planes has now been restricted,” said Birendra Prasad Shrestha, the airport’s acting general manager.
Mr. Shrestha said the government and humanitarian organizations involved in providing relief to earthquake victims are mounting pressure to lift that ban. “But we are not in favor” of doing so, he said, adding that permission for the C-17 to land had been arranged previously.
:: Tents and other supplies for earthquake victims at the airport in Kathmandu on Sunday. Credit Danish Siddiqui/Reuters. (Source: NY Times Report, Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting)