Print Edition - 2015-07-04  |  On Saturday

From relief to reconstruction

  • A concerted effort, led by the Nepali government through an extensive public-works programme (PWP), is necessary to ensure that the people of Sindhupalchok have adequate shelter for the months and years to come
- Apoorva Lal
From relief to reconstruction

Jul 3, 2015-Life is slowly returning to normalcy in Talamarang, Sindhupalchok. The local school has now reopened and is running its operations partly out of the Temporary Learning Centres (TLCs) emblazoned with China Merchant Bank insignia. Blue-plated SUVs run back and forth between Melamchi and Helambu, ferrying various international observers, who take in the devastation through darkened windows. In the afternoons, villagers neatly queued outside the local police station await relief grants. It rains every night, and everyone keenly awaits the next shipment of zinc sheets (used for roofing), so they may move to a more reassuring form of shelter than the tarps, tents, and shacks they have called home for over two months. It’s apparent that a concerted effort, led by the Nepali government through an extensive public-works programme (PWP), is necessary to ensure that the people of Sindhupalchok have adequate shelter for the months and years to come.

Moving from the rescue and relief phase of the earthquake response to the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase will doubtless prove a massive challenge. Locals now grieve in private and voice their opinions about the relief effort with a grim sense of humour. A local community member, when helping me and other volunteers clear out the rubble from a collapsed house in Mahankal-1 VDC, found a basket full of dried maize mixed with dust and mud and cheerfully carried it to the rest of the group, proclaiming, “Relief has arrived”. News of the WFP grain fiasco has clearly made its way to those worst affected by the quake, and to their credit, they have responded to it with humour rather than hostility.

Despite their hardiness (resilience, even, the mysterious quality oft-bandied about by the Western media with sensationalist, orientalist aplomb), the people of Sindhupalchok will need help to recover from this tragedy. At least 3,533 people have died, and 90 percent of the houses have been damaged by the April 25 quake and subsequent aftershocks. While goodwill and relief, both in-cash and in-kind, have flooded to the people of Nepal in general and those of Sindhupalchok in particular, the challenges of rehabilitation and reconstruction, perhaps understandably so, given the long time-frame and complexity, have slipped under the radar.

Labour is in short supply in Sindhupalchok, and the national labour market is insufficiently integrated to reallocate the surplus of labour in various districts in southern Nepal to the 14 districts most badly affected by the quakes. Neither the prospective occupant of that house in Mahankal nor the I/NGOs operating in the area were able to find builders to speed up the painfully slow clearing process being undertaken by the volunteers-turned-novice-builders. Domestic and international labour migration, the planting season of Asaar, and extensive damage to most dwellings have resulted in most local labour being either absent, busy with agriculture, or busy rebuilding their own houses. As even markets for goods (especially construction materials) are struggling to cope with the spike in demand, the hopelessly thin labour market in the sparsely populated district is unlikely to be able to expand and supply all the excess demand.

The promise of reasonably reliable work and wages has already attracted thousands to the Kathmandu Valley to assist in the demolition of dwellings unsafe for habitation, but similar transient changes in labour are yet to occur in the worst-hit areas, such as Mahankal. Given the scale of damage wrought by the quakes and the resultant covariate income shock on households in the region, it is unlikely that locals in need of shelter will be able to offer wages high enough for labourers to throng to Sindhupalchok. Neither is it likely that the NGO/INGO sector, whose projects and funding operate on relatively short time-frames and predominantly involve easily monitored and PR-friendly in-kind transfers, can solve the labour-shortage problem in Sindhupalchok. The Nepali state must step in.

A rural public-works programme, while usually discussed in the domain of development interventions as a way to assuage objections to the money-for-nothing nature of cash transfers, can serve as a useful way of reallocating labour seeking uncertain and often dangerous employment in the Gulf, albeit temporarily, to extremely useful and beneficial reconstruction work. Such a programme would involve the government (either the labour or local development ministry) announcing a recruitment drive for various skill levels with specific regional needs and wage offers. Contingent upon commensurate (though unlikely to be exorbitant) wages and correct timing (so as to avoid the planting and harvest cycle), a well-publicised public works campaign can attract labour from everywhere from Doti to Dhanusha. A public-works programme solves the selection problem by design; those who can earn higher wages in their existing employment are unlikely to take up on the programme’s offer. This also means that those who work on the PWP can do with the assistance. Nepal has a patchy record in poverty-alleviation programmes, and this can set an example as an effective development intervention.

There are concerns regarding the suitability of a public works programme to assist in reconstruction. A common critique levelled at PWPs is that they are seldom effective in attracting the skilled labour necessary for the projects involved, commonly large infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. However, reconstruction in rural Nepal involves clearing the rubble and building new shelters using locally available materials—not excessively demanding tasks given suitable supervision. The market for construction hands is not a matching market and can be corrected with a well-designed wage intervention alone. Another concern may be that they may not sufficiently leverage local knowledge and expertise. On the contrary, a PWP is designed to source local labour for infrastructure projects and can be adapted easily to accommodate local expertise and supervision to maximise the efficacy of the rebuilding process. Lastly, there may be concerns regarding local-elite capture. Compared to cash and in-kind transfers, a PWP is likely to resist corrupt practices, since it solves the selection problem by design: local elites are unlikely to participate given the small wages on offer and their high opportunity cost to engaging in a PWP.

Sindhupalchok (and the other 13 districts affected badly by the earthquakes) face a difficult road to recovery. While various measurements of the costs associated with rebuilding at the national level have been discussed and the recent donor conference yielded very promising results on national-level funding for recovery, there has been little discussion on how to channel these funds to rebuild houses in villages like Mahankal. A well-designed and transparently implemented public works programme can help channel much needed labour to facilitate the reconstruction process in areas that need it the most.

 

Published: 04-07-2015 08:30

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