22-28 May 2015 #759

Epicentre of reconstruction

Barpak is rising from the rubble and is committed to building an even better town
Tsering Dolker Gurung
The first thought that comes to mind as one approaches the village of Barpak a month after the earthquake is that things don’t look as bad as portrayed in the media. The houses seem intact, collapsed roofs have been replaced with tarpaulin sheets, and there is no rubble.

The village of Barpak seen during sunrise. All photos: Bikram Rai

But that is only from a distance.

Nearly all of Barpak’s 1,400 homes were destroyed in the quake, six of the seven schools collapsed. The VDC office, a health post, the tourism centre were all leveled. A 50 kilowatt micro-hydro plant and a telecommunication tower were also damaged.

Nothing much remains of this picturesque and prosperous hilltop town situated at 1,900m and commanding a sweeping view of mountains on the northern horizon. Gorkha’s ‘model village’ is now just an example of what being on top of the epicentre of a 7.8 quake can do to a settlement.

The architect of Barpak’s past, and of its future, is Bir Bahadur Ghale, the visionary who has channeled the energy and international exposure of a town made up mostly of families of Gurkha soldiers in the British and Indian Armies into development over the past 30 years.

“We have all learnt important lessons from this disaster,” he said, surveying the ruins of what used to be his hometown. “The goal is to make an even better Barpak and not repeat the blunders of our ancestors.”

Locals work on repairing a partially damaged house in Barpak.

Ghale is now working with the Help Barpak team, a group of ex-Gurkha servicemen and entrepreneurs to steer reconstruction with earthquake resistant houses and schools that also reflecting the village’s heritage. The quake also underlined the importance of open spaces, since ten people were killed in fires in the densely-packed town with narrow cobblestone alleys.

“Keeping future disasters in mind, we want to have wider roads so rescue vehicles can reach any part of the town,” says Ghale who also wants to revive tourism that used to be one of Barpak’s main sources of income after remittances.

Retired British Gurkha officer Lok Bahadur Ghale, 60, is heading Help Barpak, and says his town’s reputation for self-reliance could actually be a disadvantage. He says: “It may look like the people of Barpak will be able to rebuild everything on their own but that is a misconception. We need all help we can get.”

A temporary shelter built by Gurkha Engineers regiment of the British Gurkha Army.

Lok Bahadur’s own house was destroyed, and spends his time between the UK, Kathmandu and Barpak. He has been camping in a tent in his yard with his grandnieces who have come from Doncaster to help.

Nearly half of the village population works overseas, as soldiers in the British or Indian Army, or in Malaysia of the Gulf countries. Many have returned following the quake.

Mukunda Ghale (‘Robin’) is a restaurant manager from Hong Kong who collected funds from friends and came to Barpak with relief material and rescue gear last week. The father of two led a volunteer initiative to clear rubble clean the rivers and build temporary toilets.

“You couldn’t walk on these roads until few days ago,” says Mukunda who gathered 160 volunteers on the first day and today has 600 people turning up to help. “The spirit of the people has been amazing.”

Barpak’s VDC secretary Chep Prasad Amgain believes having a large number of people return home from abroad lands has helped boost the morale of the local people, who used to be mostly women and the elderly. On Saturday 200 villagers, mostly women, gathered at Ward 5 to clear debris of the village high school, the Nepal Army was building a temporary classroom, while ed on construction of a temporary school next to it.

Barpark locals work together to clear rubble of a collapsed school building on Saturday.

Barpak’s resident population is predominantly female. But Bir Bahadur Ghale doesn’t see that as a problem. “There’s no reason why a woman can’t carry bricks or lift wooden beams. The belief that only men should do physical labour is outdated.”

Another priority will be to restart the Barpak Homestay program for trekkers led by a feisty Manus Ghale which had just started to take off when the earthquake hit the village. Last year Barpak received 1,200 home stay guests.

Barpak’s supporters in the United Sates have helped acquire a temporary diesel generator that will provide three hours of electricity every evening. Says Bir Bahadur: “It’s important for the villagers to feel normal, to get connected to the outside world and see that they are not the only ones affected by the earthquake.”

The man who gave Barpak power

Mukunda Ghale, Bir Bahadur Ghale and Lok Bahadur Ghale are three of Barpak natives who returned home after the disaster last month.

When Bir Bahadur Ghale was studying in Grade Nine, he was recruited by a businessman to go to Hong Kong and bring back electronic goods – a lucrative trade in those days.

As Ghale stood atop Victoria Hill, taking in the view of what was still a British colony, and looked down at the illuminated harbor and city he was struck by the level of use of electricity.

“Everything ran on electricity and I asked myself why our village couldn’t have power too,” says Ghale.

After returning, Ghale graduated from high school and worked for a contractor building a section of the Malekhu-Naubise highway. One evening, he noticed the lights kept flickering at a roadside eatery and asked the owner why that was happening. He was told it was because the electricity was supplied from a mill and the power went out when the mill was in operation.

In 1987 Ghale returned to his village and wanted to install a micro-hydro plant, but villagers were skeptical. They didn’t believe a teenager could light up the village which still used kerosene lanterns. But Ghale persevered and with a loan from the Agricultural Development Bank lit up the town in three years. The first houses to get electricity were in the Dalit neighbourhood. Soon, everybody in Barpak wanted lights.

But Ghale didn’t want the electricity to be used only for lighting, he encouraged locals to start new ventures that would make use of excess electricity in the daytime and Barpak gots its own bakery furniture shop, and even a cargo ropeway.

In 2003 Ghale was made an Ashoka Fellow for his pioneering work with rural electrification. Today, Ghale’s company Hydro Energy has set up micro-hydro plants in Lamjung, Gorkha, Dhading, Kavre and Lalitpur.


Read also:

Path to recovery, Anurag Acharya

Jiri bounces back, Mark Zimmerman

Shaken but strong, Jan Møller Hansen

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