Nearly six months after a deadly earthquake, political aftershocks have prevented the 3 million affected people from receiving through the government the $4.1 billion pledged by the international community for rebuilding their homes.
The government formed the National Reconstruction Authority two months after the 25 April earthquake, and then on 13 August appointed Govinda Raj Pokhrel as its CEO. But parliament failed to ratify the ordinance to set it up, so Pokhrel is heading an organization that doesn’t formally exist.
“I was off to a flying start,” says Pokhrel. “We had collected a strong team and policies were being formulated. So it was a complete shock when I found out that the Reconstruction Authority was no longer a legal government entity.”
Most agree that Pokhrel, who headed the National Planning Commission, was the right man for the job. He had shown to be an efficient manager who had prepared the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction two months after the earthquake and finished a Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report in time for it.
But before Pokhrel set up his new office and hired staff to begin reconstruction works, the ordinance through which the authority was formed expired without being replaced by a bill. And the new bill through which the authority could have been legally institutionalised is unlikely to be passed by parliament any time soon because the UML doesn’t like Pokhrel, who is seen as an NC appointee.
To be sure, the main opposition UCPN (M) had also delayed the parliament proceedings on ratification citing provisions in the bill. But now it is the UML that is putting a spanner in the works. Parliament has forwarded the bill to its legislation committee, which will cut down the number of amendment proposals and send it back to the full house.
UML legislators say the present draft of the bill is ‘very weak’ and will not be strong enough to rebuild earthquake-hit areas. Most importantly, they have sought a political person as the authority’s executive chief and involvement of legislators from the earthquake-affected districts.
“You cannot rebuild the country with an authority that ignores the role of elected representatives of people,” says UML legislator Sher Bahadur Tamang from the worst-affected district of Sindhupalchok. “A technocrat cannot lead a reconstruction authority, we want a political leadership.”
But the UML’s real intention seems to have its own man at the helm of the well-endowed authority so that it can have full say in disbursing the reconstruction budget, and get credit for it. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had held out for Pokhrel and got the UML’s KP Oli to agree. Oli had even promised Pokhrel “full support” before his appointment, but now that Oli is designated as the next PM, he seems to have changed his mind.
Pokhrel did not wait for the Authority to be formed and had started preparing post-earthquake housing modalities, administrative and financial guidelines and donor coordination mechanism. Pokhrel had even initiated a process to bring on deputation the Finance Ministry’s Infrastructure Section Chief Bhisma Bhusal and the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC)’s Heritage Division Head Shriju Pradhan. He was also trying to get on board Swarnim Wagle from the NPC as a focal person to coordinate with donors.
The reconstruction ordinance was issued by President Ram Baran Yadav on 30 June, and it was to be replaced by a bill by 29 August. But after the bill was tabled in the parliament on 23 July, the Speaker Subhas Nembang called the next parliamentary meeting only on 1 September. In the meantime, the government got busy in drafting the constitution, and the Tarai was embroiled in violence.
Ministers from the NC were carelessly unaware of the cut-off date of 29 August for passing the reconstruction bill. They now allege that Nembang cunningly called the next parliamentary meeting only after the cut-off date and the parliamentary secretariat, dominated by pro-UML bureaucrats, did not bother to alert the government.
The UML and the UCPN (M) were in no hurry to approve the bill and let it lapse. NC leader and Law Minister Narhari Acharya says, “We initially thought the UCPN (M) was trying to block the reconstruction bill, but we later faced real obstacles from our own coalition partner, the UML.”
He adds: “Some of the points of amendment registered by UML legislators are duplicated and even nonsensical, and their real motive seems to delay the reconstruction authority until the next government is formed.”
Some donors who pledged money for Nepal’s reconstruction are now thinking of channeling their money through local groups and NGOs – some of them run by UML leaders involved in filibustering the bill.
Says Pokhrel: “The delay in the bill has already affected survivors, and they must get money for reconstruction before winter sets in.”
After the 25 April earthquake destroyed his mud-and-stone house in the remote village of Pangtang in Sindhupalchok district, Laxman Tamang built a timber and tin shelter on the edge of his maize field.
He lived through the monsoon in this flimsy, leaky structure. Tamang, his wife, children and elderly parents are now bracing themselves to survive a harsh winter in that crowded hut, since there is no sign of any help from Kathmandu to rebuild his home.
“I have nowhere else to go,” Tamang told us this week. “I had hoped to build a warm house before the winter, but that is unlikely to happen.”
In Kathmandu, the Reconstruction Authority has been stuck because of political wrangling over who should be its CEO and over its structure and rules. Which means the $4.1 billion pledged by the international community to rebuild homes of families like the Tamangs’ is unspent.
“I don’t know what’s going on in Kathmandu,” said Tamang. “I have heard that I cannot rebuild my house in the same way, but no one has told me how I can do it. I have also heard that the government will give us some money, but I don’t know when and how much.”
Although the earthquake had its epicentre far away in Barpak village of Gorkha district, Sindhupalchok was the worst hit with more than half the fatalities reported from here. Nearly 70,000 private houses were damaged, most of them irreparably, in Sindhupalchok alone.
Those who lost their houses spent this year’s monsoon in temporary shelters, and they are now worried about the winter season. Political wrangling over the authority is just prolonging the pain of the earthquake survivors.
Ram Chandra Sapkota is an earthquake-displaced person in Sindhupalchok. He has been living in a temporary shelter near where his house once stood. “My children cannot sleep well, they are always scared of snakes and insects,” he says. “But I do not have enough money to rebuild my house on my own. Nor has the government told us what earthquake-resistant housing models would be like.”
Dasain is just a week away, but families like the Sapkotas are in no mood to celebrate. On top of the earthquake damage, there are the woes of the Indian blockade. “This year’s Dasain will be joyless,” he says. “Those who lost their relatives are still in mourning, and the homeless like me are not in a mood to celebrate.”
Sindhupalchok’s CDO Balbhadra Giri says: “We’re doing nothing about reconstruction yet, we are still waiting for the Reconstruction Authority to begin its work.”
The government wants the reconstruction grants of Rs 200,000 per family to only go for seismic resistant house designs, but because the authority doesn’t legally exist yet, the plans have not been made public.
Because of this, villagers in Barpak, near the epicentre of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, have been rebuilding with the same unreinforced masonry. Gorkha’s assistant CDO Dipendra Poudel says: “Given the scale of damage, reconstruction might take longer and require more resources in Gorkha.”
With Kathmandu preoccupied with political issues like constitution, the Madhes unrest, the blockade andthe formation of new government, some earthquake-affected people and communities in Gorkha have started reconstruction on their own without waiting for the authority to approve new quake-resistant housing modality.
In Barpak, the April catastrophe taught the locals that building safe houses was the best way to survive disastrous earthquakes. So they waited for the government to come up with a master plan to build back Barpak in a better way. But they are now frustrated with the sluggish government, and a third of them have already rebuilt their homes.
Jit Bahadur Ghale, a local tourism entrepreneur in Barpak, says: “The newly rebuilt houses might look a bit more sturdy, but they are not fully earthquake-resistant.”
The locals of Barpak say the government left them with no choice but to follow the same unsafe housing model by delaying the formation of the Reconstruction Authority.
Ensuring proper insurance, Sahina Shrestha
The Kiwi way to reconstruction, Sahina Shrestha
Deconstructing reconstruction, Sahina Shrestha
Better build back, Sonia Awale
Pangtang in pain, Om Astha Rai
Epicenter of reconstruction, Tsering Dolker Gurung