2.5 million earthquake survivors have waited one year for help while the Reconstruction Authority discusses procedures and guidelines
Om Astha Rai
IN RUINS: Homes destroyed in the 12 May aftershock in Manthali are still in ruins, and 200 families have been living in shelters for the past year on the banks of the Tama Kosi.
The Red Cross Society was all set to start building houses for 100 families in Ramechhap, one of 14 districts affected by last April’s earthquake, when the government suddenly announced a temporary ban on reconstruction of private homes. The work had halted.
In a terse notice, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) directed all relief agencies to stop reconstructing private homes destroyed or damaged in the earthquake without its approval. It said it wanted to ‘bring uniformity’, ‘avoid duplication’, and ensure that the new homes were seismic resistant.
“The ban is only till the procedure guidelines for non-governmental agencies to work in reconstruction come out,” explained Suresh Adhikari, spokesperson for the NRA. “We don’t mean to stop INGOs and NGOs from reconstruction projects, just to bring them under our jurisdiction.”
The draft guidelines, which will be presented to the next Cabinet meeting, includes following government-approved house designs, ensuring transparency in the source of funding and avoiding overlaps.
The Authority’s latest ruling has come under blistering attack from relief agencies that had stepped in to make up for delays in rehabilitation in the past year. The 2.5 million survivors have waited nearly one year for assistance, and critics say it is too late to be discussing procedures and guidelines.
The Reconstruction Authority’s second CEO, Sushil Gyewali, who was appointed only in December by the Oli administration, has blamed delays in setting up the body on the shortage of staff and lack of inter-agency coordination.
To many relief groups and volunteers who have been doing what the government should be, the excuses are all too familiar. In the past year they have seen many examples of government lethargy, confusing directives, and misplaced priorities. Although the blockade and the constitution are given as excuses for the delay, the real reason is infighting between the NC and the UML that delayed setting up the Reconstruction Authority.
There was much hope when Gyewali was appointed CEO because of his reputation of being a doer. But one of his first actions after taking over was to announce a competition for the Authority’s logo. This month it was reported that employees would retroactively receive double their current allowances.
Many families have not rebuilt their homes fearing they will not get the promised Rs 200,000 compensation if they do so. Instead of clarifying this, the Authority has now ordered the suspension of even reconstruction that had already started.
If everything goes according to plan, people in Singati of Dolakha will receive the first installment of Rs 50,000 on 13 March followed by Rs 80,000 after the approval of their house design and the remaining Rs 70,000 once the work is completed. Apart from the Rs 200,000 in aid, families will also be eligible for Rs 2.5 million in soft loans, but Rastra Bank hasn’t yet finalised guidelines for the credit.
The Authority’s census of damaged houses is delayed, and not even half of the 600,000 homes have been inventoried yet. The deadlines of April to complete the assessment so that reconstruction can begin by 25 April are not likely to be met. Now, Gyewali says rebuilding is not possible before the monsoon.
In urban areas, many have decided not to wait for the Rs 200,000 and have started to rebuild on their own since the money will not even pay for building one room.
Relief agencies and major donors are also getting impatient with the excuses and delays. They are surprised that instead of concentrating on speedy implementation, the Authority wants to convene another donor conference and work on a 5-year reconstruction plan. Of the $4.1 billion pledged at the International Conference of Nepal’s Reconstruction last June, $860 million is committed, but none of that money has been spent.
“Let the work start, we have waited too long,” said Kenichi Yokoyama, Nepal Director of the Asian Development Bank. “The NRA should not regulate but facilitate, what we need now is quick decision-making.”
Being a political appointee, Gyewali is facing opposition from the bureaucracy, and many competent civil servants have refused to join the Authority because he is their junior. The office needs at least 208 staff, but has hired only 60 so far.
“The government of Nepal is not ready yet. It is working as best as it can but it is not at all efficient and the capacity is limited,” said a high-ranking bilateral donor official. “It isn’t only that the NRA is understaffed, line ministries are not cooperating and they don't even attend donor meetings."
Government foot-dragging and obstruction could also undermine the work relief agencies are doing with the remnants of VDCs in places like Singati and Langtang.
Says Norwegian social worker, Olav Myrholt: “If this goes on, local people will lose the little trust they have of the central government. Most relief agencies would love it if the government came in to help, but all they see are delays and hurdles.”
Deconstruction authority, Editorial
Reconstruction in ruins, Om Astha Rai and Sahina Shrestha
Authority to reconstruct, Om Astha Rai
The authority to rebuild, Editorial