25-31 December 2015 #788

Homeless in winter

Earthquake survivors are desperate, but the government is not
Om Astha Rai in RASUWA


The sun is dazzlingly bright here in Dhunche of Rasuwa district but the air is crisp and cold. As soon as the sun dips behind the mountains to the west, the temperature plunges down to – 5 Celsius.

Surya Kumar Tamang blows into his hands as he enters the tin hut (pic, above) where his wife Chuchi is blowing into the fire to ready the evening meal. The couple moved down here from their village of Yarsa, that was devastated by the April earthquake and have been living in this shelter for the past eight months.

“I thought I would live here for some weeks, or may be a few months,” Tamang told us, “but I am still not sure when I will go home.”

In November he returned to his village to rebuild his earthquake-damaged house with a loan from friends and relatives. But a local official warned him he may not be eligible for the Rs 200,000 grant to be distributed by the National Reconstruction Authority if he did that. So he dropped the idea, and decided to brave it out in the shelter.

This town at the gateway to Langtang National Park was prospering due to the six new hydropower plants coming up on the Bhote Kosi, but with construction on hold due to the Indian blockade Dhunche has instead become a refuge for those displaced by the quake.

After months of political bickering over who should lead the Authority, parliament finally passed a bill last week to set it up. But the CEO has not been appointed yet, and this means more uncertainty for the Tamang family and hundreds of thousands like them all in the 14 affected districts who lost their homes.

Rani Mhendo Tamang, 29, from Haku village also feels betrayed by the government and cannot hide her disappointment, but manages to keep her spirits up.

“Political leaders did not lose their houses, and they have their warm homes in Kathmandu,” she says, “only the poor like us suffer like this. They cannot feel our pain unless they spend a night in our shelter.”

Her home across the Bhote Kosi is deserted, it is now merely a cluster of ruined houses where there was once a bustling village of Tamang farmers. Haku is deserted not just because of the destroyed homes but also because of the continuous danger of rockslides from the mountains above.

“We probably cannot go back there, but the government needs to tell us where we can settle down,” she said. “We do not want to live like squatters forever.”

Rani Mhendo Tamang cannot go back to her village because the district administration has not assessed if it is now safe. Surya Kumar Tamang cannot rebuild his house because models of earthquake-resistant houses have not been finalised. The government is giving Rs 10,000 for families to buy warm clothes, but distribution has been slow. The homeless earthquake survivors are desperate, but the government is not.

“We are alive so far,” says Karbo Tamang, also from Haku village. “But I do not know if we will still be alive when it starts snowing after a few weeks.”

Like other homeless earthquake survivors, he is also living in a shelter built of bamboo poles, zinc sheets and tarp. His wife is in the corner attending to the kitchen fire, the inside of the shelter is filled with choking blue smoke. He says simply: “We have a choice to either suffocate in the smoke or freeze in the cold.”

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