24-30 November 2017 #885

Voting amidst the ruins

Elections further delay earthquake reconstruction
Shreejana Shrestha in Kavre

Bikram Rai

Ishwori Paudel of Mandan Deupur municipality of Kavre has gone to his bank 10 times for the second tranche of the government's earthquake reconstruction grant of Rs150,000 for his house. He still hasn't got the money.

“I was supposed to get the second instalment two months ago, but I still haven’t, and they just told me the money is delayed because of the elections," he says.

Paudel’s house was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake and he was one of the 667,662 beneficiaries identified by the government to receive the housing grants. Almost three years later, most survivors are struggling to get the money.

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After receiving his first tranche of Rs 50,000 Paudel started building a new house as per a seismic-resistant design approved by an engineer and forwarded for a green light from the local ward office.

“The ward chair is busy with elections, but it should not be an excuse when it comes to compensating quake victims like me,” laments Paudel.

Several other families in Paudel’s ward also haven’t received their second instalment, and 34 families never even got their first tranche.

In the past, reconstruction work was delayed due to government negligence, mismanagement and frequent changes of the CEO at the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). Now, the elections are also delaying rebuilding.

NRA CEO Govind Pokharel stepped down from his post to vie for a parliamentary seat in Pyuthan, and it will take time for his replacement, Yubaraj Bhusal, to master the NRA's files. Bhusal will be the agency's fourth CEO in two years. Meanwhile, many quake survivors are hunkering down for a third winter in tents.

Jhalak Paudel, who heads Paudel’s Ward 8 in Mandan Deupur municipality, told Nepal Times his workload has increased three-fold because of the upcoming polls.

“As of now I am not just the head of the ward. I have election-related multiple responsibilities and I am not able to find time to look after the reconstruction process,” says Paudel.

The fourth in a series of reports by The Asia Foundation, Aid and Recovery in Post-Earthquake Nepal, reveals that quake victims felt that preparations for the local elections earlier this year affected reconstruction.

'The main impacts were the temporary suspension of the distribution of reconstruction cash grants, NRA’s grievance management and NGOs’ and INGOs’ work,' the report notes.

Released in October and based on surveys of earthquake-affected households in April 2017, the report recommends finding ways to continue reconstruction while the Election Code of Conduct is in force for the provincial and national elections.

The on-going campaigns for provincial and parliamentary elections have affected the reconstruction process in many ways, yet none of the political parties has included reconstruction in election manifestos — proving once more the apathy and neglect of earthquake victims by the polticial leadership.

Rudra Malla of the NRA office in Sindhupalchok is now deployed at the Election Office. He says he hasn’t seen any parties talk about reconstruction during their campaigning in his district.

Other rebuilding work is also at a standstill, he explains. “It is difficult to start any new agreement with development partners, even if they want,” says Malla, adding, “at the same time people don’t want to go for masonry or other training because the election campaigns are like carnivals.”

New NRA CEO Bhusal disagrees that the overall delay in reconstruction has been caused by elections. “The real reason is the structural problem of the NRA," he told us, admitting that poll campaigning could have distracted people from rebuilding.

Bhusal notes that hiring inefficient engineers was the biggest reason for the NRA’s past delays. “I have ensured that the new 1,100 engineers were hired on the basis of merit and will perform their best,” he said.

Asked about providing shelter to quake victims this winter, he shared an ambitious plan to train 54,000 masons and carpenters in the next two months, and to move 60% of private households to safer homes within six months. Many of the voters in the 14 earthquake-affected districts have heard such promises before.

Information gap slows reconstruction

Life is slowly improving for many Nepalis whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the 2015 earthquakes but there are notable exceptions and, overall, major uncertainty about the reconstruction process.

These findings are based on the fourth in a series of surveys conducted by The Asia Foundation in April 2017, which were published in October. The first round of research was done in June 2015, the second in February-March 2016 and the third in September 2016.

The 4th survey interviewed nearly 4,854 respondents in 11 earthquake-affected districts.

It found that, under the Nepal Rural Housing Reconstruction Program (NRHRP), 40% of people in earthquake-affected areas were receiving recovery or reconstruction assistance compared to just 15% in September 2016. Seventy-four percent were living in their own homes, compared to 60% right after the earthquakes.

However, as previous surveys stressed, some groups were lagging behind. “The marginalised — low caste, low income groups, widows and the disabled — and those who live in more remote areas are more likely to remain in shelters and have found it much harder to move home,” said the report.

The document also sounded the alarm about a growing reliance on borrowing money. Between September 2016 and April 2017, borrowers — most likely to be households that had a low income before the earthquake, people of low caste or those with disabilities — took loans averaging RS363,193, a threefold increase since June 2015.

The survey also found that political parties had virtually ceased their support for rebuilding, although they were increasingly busy with elections at the local level. 59% of people in all affected districts were dissatisfied with local political parties’ assistance with disaster relief.

By April 2017, nearly all of those who were eligible for the RHRP grant had received the first instalment, the survey found. Most of them found it easy or somewhat easy to access the first tranche. However, taking the next step was more difficult for many.

'While reconstruction of private houses started to progress significantly in late 2016,' the report says, 'it had slowed down again by early 2017 due to labour shortages, high prices for construction labour and materials, high transportation costs and delays in the inspection process and the disbursement of the second instalment of the housing reconstruction grant.'

In fact, many households that received the first tranche did not, or did not plan to, use the money to rebuild. Only 37% of people said in April that they would use the grant for the intended purpose of building a new house using an approved, safe model, a drop from 44% in September 2016.

'Households are confused about timelines and the requirements needed to receive the second instalment of the housing grant. People also lack information on procedures, requirements and technical standards, which has delayed the ability of people to take informed decisions about rebuilding,' concludes the report.

Marty Logan

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