Since Saturday (over three days now), news of Nepal’s earthquake and the rising death toll are dominating the bulletins. What started off as 200 dead is now 5000 and climbing. When there is a full on earthquake of 7.9 on the Richter scale, causing avalanches to move the mighty Everest, the scale of the tragedy is immense. Millions are leaving the country. Imagine if this occurred in the Swiss or Austrian Alps, or even the Scottish Highlands – the relief effort would be organised with expedience from within these countries. For the amount of luxury tourism that takes place in Nepal, surely the people who live there should be more fortunate than this. The Nepali Gurkhas are one of world’s poorest and possibly one of the most poorly educated people – you see young boys from there working in restaurant kitchens in the south of India, thousands of miles away, in Chennai – nimble, strong and hardworking, doing menial labour. An average of three bodies of Nepali construction workers from Qatar, apparently get flown back on a weekly basis.
Anyone who has visited the Himalayas will agree that it is an amazingly powerful experience. The awesome scale of the mountain peaks and the steep drop to raging rivers below, with the water spray rising up 5000 feet has attracted pilgrims and tourists from all over the world for decades. Ghangaria in Uttarakhand was ravaged by floods two years ago – unrecognisable now, but a disaster waiting to happen. The lushness and the magnificence were all too precarious, a few years before that happened – the erosion of the landscape on full display – with boulders bouncing off great heights in front of our Jeeps, holding us up until the landslides stopped. As a 14000-foot tall mountain disintegrated nearby, hill women carrying baskets like tea-pickers were climbing up an almost vertical mountain-face collecting grass for their livestock. They clambered up with their heavy load, with no ropes or safety equipment and looked at us sitting inside the vehicle, in a bemused fashion. In that moment we gawped at each other – both in total incomprehension.
Tourism does very little to alleviate the lives of the poor. Nepal is like any other poor nation with tourism as its main economic activity. In Egypt, for example, our guide spoke passionately about it being the lifeblood of his country. But there’s almost no sign of improvement in the way the poor live, in any of the tourist sites we visited – just hawkers, desperate to sell cheap scarves and papyrus paintings. Cambodia has been spruced up for the foreign crowd – but look beneath the polished exterior, the starvation and deprivation is clear to see. Drive across the Rajasthan desert, women walk miles with clay pots on their heads, to collect water. There’s no electricity in their medieval mud huts but package tourists can access unbelievable luxury as they walk around grand palaces and forts, get married in great style and channel their inner royal fantasies.
For years, we’ve been saturated by continuous footage of the horrors of natural disasters in places far and near. An emotional reaction to human tragedy manages to raise funds when urgently needed. From the famine in Ethiopia in the 80s, to Haiti and everywhere in between, people in the west are generous donors, willing to part with cash and many with their time and energy too. Some would argue that diseases like malaria and AIDS kill many more, but the world is apathetic to this.
As the news keeps on coming, humans eventually find ways to desensitise themselves. This has been a longstanding coping mechansim – some have learnt to do this sooner than others. In India, for example, there are floods that wreak havoc, calamities like the Tsunami, and earthquakes – death tolls in four digits will raise a mere shrug of sympathy. Fatalistic, it may seem, but it is understood that when these sort of events occur, the poor have always died in droves.
I happened to be in Chennai when the Tsunami happened – about 350 people died in the city – compared to the devastation elsewhere in the south of the country and of course in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka – this was relatively low damage. The many fisher-folk who survived spoke of earning 20 rupees a day. The men earned a little more – maybe 80-100 rupees. An average breakfast for two in Chennai can cost more than a hundred rupees.
In the years since my childhood in India – where economic progress was slow but steady, the 21st century seemed like the golden future of an end to abject poverty, better living conditions and greater equality. But that remains a fantasy as the fate of so many remains miserable and hopeless.