Transparency and Disaster: Tales from the Reconstruction of Post-Earthquake Nepal
Though it is banal to say the series of earthquakes that hit Nepal this last spring will radically change the country, what this change will consist of still remains undetermined. As government-led reconstruction efforts meander forward with little noticeable effect, and as many earthquake victims learn to make do in broken houses, tents or corrugated tin structures, post-earthquake Nepal seems held within a frustrating kind of stasis, wherein temporary hardship is often impossible to distinguish from lasting consequence. Yet this sense of stasis is in part misleading. While the act of building houses remains stymied for many, reconstruction has nevertheless radically changed the relationship between everyday life and bureaucratic documents. This, I argue, is an effect of major importance. While historically the relationship between everyday life and bureaucratic documentation—including land ownership registration, building approvals or the collateralization of land for bank loans—has been deeply mediated by informal arrangements, now families are being forced to create documents that renders their lives “transparent” in order to access government aid and receive permission to rebuild. Whether it be updating land deeds that remain registered to deceased relations or dealing with their destroyed house’s encroachment onto government land, this reckoning between life and its documentation has created a cascade of interpersonal drama as families scramble to create representations of themselves that best suit their economic interests. My paper follows this process. Focusing on two heavily damaged areas—namely central Patan and a village in Rasuwa—I analyze how this reckoning between life and bureaucracy continues to disrupt informal arrangements, while also making space for new arrangements to emerge. Indeed, informality is hardly disappearing, but is adapting quickly to the new procedures being imposed on earthquake victims. By telling this story, I aim to critique those who see Nepal’s reconstruction program hinging on its transparency, arguing instead that this pursuit of unmediated representation can itself lead to unintended consequences and disenfranchisement, and also may in part be to blame for Nepal’s delayed rebuilding.