Nepal Quake Anniversary: Not A Single House Rebuilt

Jaideep Mazumdar

Apr 25, 2016, 09:50 PM | Updated 09:50 PM IST

A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Bhaktapur on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal. (Photo:Getty)
A Buddha statue is surrounded by debris from a collapsed temple in the UNESCO world heritage site of Bhaktapur on April 26, 2015 in Bhaktapur, Nepal. (Photo:Getty)
      The earthquake of April 25, 2015 and its aftershocks devastated Nepal, left nearly 9000 dead, 8.5 lakh houses destroyed and millions homeless
      International donors pledged US$4.1 billion
      Till date not a single house has been rebuilt
      Nepal’s communist lawmakers primarily to blame for this.

Exactly a year ago, in the forenoon of April 25, 2015, a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7.8 hit Nepal. The tremblor, and its series of aftershocks, left nearly 9,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and maimed and lakhs of people homeless, besides destroying health and educational institutions and hundreds of heritage structures that used to draw lakhs of tourists from across the world.

A year later, not a single house or building has been reconstructed, though other countries and international aid agencies have pledged US $ 4.1 billion, almost all of which lies unutilized even a year after the disaster. And it is the country’s politicians, primarily the Communists, who are to blame for this. Nepal’s government machinery got off to a slow start and the country’s politicians received a lot of flak for their scant response to the devastation. But the government slowly got its act together and announced the constitution of the Nepal Reconstruction Authority(NRA) in June last year. On June 25 last year, two months after the quake, international aid agencies and countries pledged US $ 4.1 billion and promised more when required.

On June 30, then President Ram Baran Yadav issued an ordinance setting up the NRA. The ordinance was to have been ratified and made into an act by the Nepali Parliament within two months. The then Nepali Congress (NC) government headed by Sushil Koirala took about a month to draft the bill and introduced it in Parliament on July 23. But the Speaker, many allege deliberately, called the next session on September 1, thus ensuring that the bill would lapse. The government also took no initiative to call a special session of Parliament to get the bill passed.

But it was the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) that ensured that the bill was never passed by Parliament. UCPN-M lawmakers delayed parliamentary proceedings over some provisions of the bill. Observers say their objections were inconsequential and political in nature. The CPN-UML also put the spanner in the works.

 Family members of earthquake victims pray during a Buddhist ceremony to commemorate the victims of last year’s earthquake that hit Nepal, on April 24, 2016 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo: Getty)
Family members of earthquake victims pray during a Buddhist ceremony to commemorate the victims of last year’s earthquake that hit Nepal, on April 24, 2016 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo: Getty)

The NC government had appointed a competent and highly respected technocrat, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, as the chief executive of the NRA. Pokhrel got to work immediately and prepared a comprehensive post-disaster need assessment report that contained details of all families affected and in need of aid. Pokhrel, who had headed the country’s planning commission, was also well-regarded by international donor agencies. Prime Minister Koirala had also got CPN-UML leader K.P.Sharma Oli, who is the current Prime Minister, to support Pokhrel’s appointment. But Oli backed out very soon and got his MPs to demand that the NRA be headed by a politician and include MPs of the affected areas. His objection to Pokhrel’s appointment was purely petty and political and led to this year-long delay in starting reconstruction works.

The Communists held the NRA to ransom and allowed it to start functioning only after they took over the reins of power in mid-October last year. Oli became the Prime Minister and the CPN-UML government got a party loyalist Sushil Gyawali (he was a CPN-UML student leader) appointed as the CEO of NRA. The NRA bill was also finally approved by Parliament eight months after the earthquake. The Kathmandu Post, a popular English language daily of Nepal, aptly noted: “The NRA has been held hostage due to the wrangling among major political parties, whose greed over the billions (of dollars) of pledged funds and reconstruction money is no longer a secret”. Most people say Nepal’s communists have to take the major share of the blame for letting millions of homeless and poor Nepalis fend for themselves in temporary shelters, first during the monsoons last year and then in the freezing winters. This year, too, these hapless millions will have to spend the monsoons in their temporary shelters made of flimsy corrugated iron sheets and canvas tents.

The delay in providing relief and succor to the quake affected has been severely criticized in the media. Nepal’s newspapers have reported that frustration is mounting among the masses over the snail’s pace of relief and rehabilitation. It was only on March 13 this year that the NRA disbursed the house reconstruction dole of Nepali Rupees 2,00,000 to a person at Singati in Dolakha district. Deepak Thapa wrote in the Kathmandu Post a few days ago: “That it took such a long time to take that first step points to an insensitivity that is mind-boggling”. In the same article, Thapa also highlights an appalling fact--that officials were reluctant to join the NRA and had to be enticed to join the body with a ‘motivational allowance’ of a hundred percent of their salaries. That means those working in the NRA get double the salaries of other civil servants and this extra allowance comes from donors ’money that was meant for quake victims!

Prime Minister Oli formally kicked off the reconstruction effort by laying the first foundation brick of a new house at Syanbo in the worst-affected Sindhupalchok district on Sunday (April 24), a full year after the quake! Oli, at the function, tried to lamely blame the siege laid of the Indo-Nepal border by Madhesis angry over the raw deal they got in the proposed Constitution drafted by Oli and his fellow-communists. However, as Shankar Dahal writes in the weekly Nepali Times from Singati in Dolakha district: “People may not be able to read and write, but they know exactly what is causing the delay: the political games parties play in Kathmandu and the competition between them to control donor grants and to take credit”.

NRA joint secretary and spokesperson Ram Prasad Thapaliya told Swarajya from Kathmandu that reconstruction will be fast-tracked from now on. “We have completed the survey and documentation of nearly six lakh destroyed houses and are confident that NRA will be able to fulfil its mandate of reconstructing, restoring and repairing all structures within the stipulated five years,” he said. Chandra Kumar Ghimire, secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, said: “We are looking ahead and will speed up all works and provide succor to all the affected people”.

Nepal does have a task of Himalayan proportions in front of it. And people don’t really have confidence on the politicians to deliver. Apart from the fact that not a single dwelling has been reconstructed as yet, not even the reconstruction of heritage sites has started. The NRA website says that reconstruction of the first two heritage sites, both in Kathmandu--Rani Pokhari and Dharahara--has been “initiated”. In reality, the bidding process for reconstruction of Rani Pokhari has just commenced and the designing of a new Dharahara has started. So much for bureaucrat-speak!

The April 25 quake and the 424 aftershocks of 4.0 magnitude or more caused 8,891 deaths, left 22,302 injured (many of them critically maimed for life), 6,08,155 residential buildings completely destroyed and 2,98,998 badly damaged. More than 2,600 government buildings, including schools, health centers and hospitals, were completely destroyed and 3,776 suffered major damage. A total of 734 historical sites, including old palaces and archaeologically important structures, were badly hit and of them, 133 collapsed completely, 95 suffered major damage and 515 were partially damaged. The lives of 80 lakh people, or almost a third of Nepal’s population, was impacted by the quake which pushed one million people below the poverty line. This has led to a stark rise in indebtedness, human trafficking, prostitution and an alarming increase in violence against women (mainly domestic violence) and substance abuse. Sadly, Nepal’s ruling politicians seem to lack the requisite will to tackle the many crises facing the Himalayan nation.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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