Necessity of culture

  • The impact of the earthquake cannot and should not be measured in physical terms only
- umesh pokharel

Jul 31, 2016-

During my recent visit to Gatlang in Rasuwa district, a tourist hub in the Tamang heritage trek of the Langtang region, I met members of a local cultural group engaged in a serious discussion with officials from the District Disaster Relief Committee (DDRC) and the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). They were asking the officials to reconstruct their houses in the traditional style. The houses in Gatlang, which were made of stonewall and black wooden roofs with customary art and craft of Buddha, flowers, Tibetan mantras, etc. engraved on house-pillars and doors, are important memories for the locals. The Gatlang population stood firm on their campaign to restore their village in the traditional manner, to the extent that they rejected the silver colored CGI sheets offered by NGOs.

Although people in other quake-affected districts have not opposed the on-going reconstruction process like those in Gatlang, they are concerned about whether or not the reconstruction policy will respect and adhere to their cultural norms and local architectural tradition. They have a number of queries regarding reconstruction: how buildings will be rebuilt, whether they will comply with local building designs and whether the locals will be allowed to construct houses that satisfy their spiritual needs, among others.

Cultural consideration

The effect of earthquake cannot only be measured in terms of physical destruction, as the disaster also affected the socio-cultural dimension of many communities. The quake did not only destruct buildings but also the art and craft engraved on those structures and the unique style of construction as a whole. Since cultural loss caused by the quake is massive, a reconstruction process without due cultural consideration will be incomplete.

Rebuilding houses by prioritising traditional styles will make people feel that their inherited social and cultural capital is restored. It will have symbolic significance for their identity, which will aid their psychological recovery. It will enable a child to know the traditional art and craft, value and belief system and norms passed down from generations to generations. It will help the present generation to pass on their traditional values to the next generation. If we fail to protect our culture and tradition, our indigenous knowledge and unique identity will face a crisis. 

When I met senior citizens in Dolakha, Sindhupalchok and Rasuwa districts, they recalled the time, energy and money they had spent to construct their old houses. They shared a number stories of their struggle and passion associated with the construction. Seeing those houses collapse was very hard for them. Thus, constructing the new houses using earthquake resilient methods but in the traditional style will provide them with emotional healing. Following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, a large number of people preferred to have their houses rebuilt using traditional salvaged materials like timber, iron, brick and stones and with traditional architectural styles.

Missing strategy

Although the United Nations Operational Guidelines on Human Rights Protection in Situations of Natural Disasters states that owners of destroyed houses should get to decide as far as possible how their houses will be rebuilt, the feelings of  the affected population, their lifestyles, culture, tradition, norms and values are not duly acknowledged in the reconstruction policy in Nepal.

Policymakers and top bureaucrats frequently talk about culture-friendly reconstruction, but their deeds prove otherwise. None of the existing policies, acts, procedures and guidelines, including National Reconstruction and Rehabilitation policy 2072 BS, Guideline on Mobilization of NGOs in Reconstruction and Rehabilitation 2072, Guidelines on Grant Distribution for Reconstruction of Private Houses Damaged by Earthquakes 2072 and building construction code of conduct and standard issued by the Ministry of Urban Development, have specifically addressed the cultural concerns of the affected population. 

Lack of policies to address cultural concerns is likely to affect the reconstruction process as a whole. Since quake victims are occupied at present with administrative processes such as getting their names registered as beneficiaries, they have not concentrated much on cultural issues, the way people in Gatlang have. However the issue is bound to arise and to affect the reconstruction process.

Building homes in a traditional manner also has a direct link with tourism. According to the Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report of the National Planning Commission, the tourism sector faced losses of around Rs81.24 billion due to the Gorkha earthquake. Restoration of the houses in the traditional style can be one of the means to regain the earlier look of the villages, thereby attracting a higher number of tourists.

Lessons from outside

Reconstruction initiatives of Qeshm, an Island off Southern Iran, following the 2005 earthquake was delayed due to the fact that locals refused the loan support offered by the government—Qeshm populace were Sunnis and their religion does not allow them to take interest-bearing loans. A report of the University of Tehran entitled ‘The Role of Beliefs and Traditions in Reconstruction after Disasters’ states that after negotiations between the government officials and the religious sheikhs, the decision was made to reduce the interest rate down to less than 4 percent and the issue was partially resolved. With the sheikhs’ approval, many people accepted the loan. Still, some people kept on refusing the loan, which left some adverse, long-term effects in the region.

The Iranian example provides an insight into the impact of a lack of cultural consideration by the government on the success (or lack thereof) of the reconstruction process. Similarly in Haiti, having initially faced obstacles due to the lack of cultural consideration in recovery and reconstruction initiatives, the authorities later acknowledged the importance of culture by recognising it as a key component of the Action Plan for National Recovery and Development.

The experience of recovery and reconstruction initiatives in other countries including Iran and Haiti should encourage Nepal to incorporate cultural issues and concerns into existing policies, guidelines and processes related to the earthquake reconstruction.

 Pokharel is a development communications professional

Published: 31-07-2016 08:24

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