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Second chance

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

It is hard to believe that it has already been two years since an earthquake devastated Central Nepal, leaving nearly 9,000 people dead, more than 2 million homeless and a country in a state of shock. Although the loss of life and destruction was tragic, Nepal got off lightly. Only 14 of the country’s 75 districts were affected, the frequency and duration of the shock waves meant that concrete structures were spared, and 25 April 2015 being Saturday saved thousands of school children.

2 years earthquake

There were important lessons we could have learnt about preparedness for the inevitable Even Bigger One. Post-earthquake reconstruction provided the perfect opportunity to reverse the out-migration of young men. Political parties had the chance to prove that they had the welfare of Nepalis foremost in their minds. The aftermath of the earthquake should have shaken us enough for parliament to finally set up the Disaster Management Authority to deal with future calamities. We squandered it all.

Relief and rescue could have been better managed if there were elected local councils accountable to the people. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope that we may have elections on 14 May for village, district and municipal bodies. But as the second anniversary approaches, there isn’t much more to add to a similar editorial we wrote last year in this space on the first anniversary.

The only difference is that the lack of urgency on the part of the state is even more glaring. Mired in politics and competition to take credit for relief, political parties have cancelled themselves out – leaving the people to largely fend for themselves. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has been bogged down by the NC and UML taking turns to oust and induct their own chiefs.

The NRA headed by Govind Pokharel got off to a fine start in 2015, and won the confidence of donors. But after it came to power, the UML replaced him with its own flunkie. Pokharel was recently reinstated, but he is being made to jump through hoops by political appointees within the NRA.

The agency has become a convenient lightning rod for blame, to let a lethargic government machinery off the hook. The NRA has only a coordinating role, and needs a nod from the Ministry of Finance for every paisa; all reconstruction work is coursed through other ministries where there is little coordination. In a candid interview last week, Pokharel told us that this was not the NRA he had envisaged in the 2015 Post Disaster Needs Assessment report. We endorse his call for the NRA to be able to manage its own funds.

And speaking of funds, Nepal has actually received less than a third of the $9.38 billion the NRA estimated it needed to rebuild homes, public buildings and infrastructure. Of the $4.1 billion pledged by donors in 2015, only $2.73 billion has actually materialised (most of it in loans). This is not even enough for the housing grant of Rs 300,000 per family, which itself is inadequate to rebuild. The NRA has come up with a new affordable design, but there seems little interest.

The main takeaway on the second anniversary is: International help has fallen far short of pledges and is much less than the amount actually needed, a lot of it is not going through the NRA, and (as in other spheres of development) the government has failed in coordination.

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