Nepal earthquake: Nepalis rue slow government response, some blame politics

KATHMANDU/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Nepal's government has drawn early criticism from opposition politicians and some residents for what they say has been a sluggish response to the humanitarian crisis triggered by Saturday's massive earthquake.

As the body count from the 7.8 magnitude quake in Nepal rose to more than 5,000 on Tuesday, aid had begun to arrive in the country, but disbursement in many areas was slow.

The country's mountainous terrain, poor infrastructure and lack of equipment has complicated the task of assessing the damage and saving lives.

But even in the capital Kathmandu, people frustrated at waiting for search and rescue teams have been picking through rubble of collapsed buildings with their bare hands to look for loved ones buried underneath.

The opposition Unified Communist Party said it was cranking up its large volunteer network to extend relief to people, accusing the government of moving too slowly. "The government's response has not been good. They have not been able to carry out rescue and relief operations well," said Shiva Khakurel, aide to former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the former communist revolutionary better known as Prachanda.

"They seem to be directionless," he added.

The Himalayan nation's government was almost invisible in the quake's immediate aftermath, critics said, although it had stepped up its response by Monday when Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam personally supervised aid delivery at the country's main airport.

Khakurel said Prachanda will meet Prime Minister Sushil Koirala later in the day to draw his attention to the government's shortcomings and offer help in distributing relief material in remote areas of the country.

Koirala told Reuters on Tuesday that he was ordering intensified rescue efforts. "The government is doing all it can for rescue and relief on a war footing," Koirala said in an interview. "It is a challenge and a very difficult hour for Nepal."

DISTRACTING POLITICS

George Varughese, Nepal representative for San Francisco-based Asia Foundation, said years of political instability had distracted the administration and left it under-prepared to deal with humanitarian crises in the disaster-prone country.

"Disaster management has dropped in the priority list to secondary and tertiary level of importance," said Varughese.

Nepal, a poor country sandwiched between India and China, has had an especially tumultuous start to the new millennium.

In 2001, the country of 28 million made global headlines when the crown prince, Dipendra, gunned down 10 members of his family, including his father, King Birendra Shah, before killing himself.

In 2008, more than a decade after it started, a communist insurgency led to the overthrow of the monarchy. Since then, Nepal has been in political paralysis as factions have failed to agree on a new constitution.

"It is a fragile system there, but it does show that such a disaster has political consequences as well, in the sense that the government is not seen to be able to take charge," said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

But he hoped the political leadership would step up to assuage their citizens' concerns in the next 48 to 72 hours.