Print Edition - 2015-07-19  |  Free the Words

Going nowhere

  • The relocation plan is failing because nobody wants to move to a strange new place
Going nowhere

Jul 18, 2015-

The earthquake of April 25 came as another big jolt to a country that was already deep in frustration due to the delayed constitution-writing process. The Gorkha-centric earthquake left behind more than 8,700 people killed and over 22,000 injured. Hundreds of thousands of people across many districts of the country were made homeless. Entire villages were flattened. Centuries of cultural architecture was destroyed at Unesco World Heritage Sitesin the Kathmandu Valley, including Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur durbar squares, Changu Narayan Temple and Swayambhu Stupa.

In the midst of this crisis, the news of the tabling of the draft constitution came as a big relief, although it has yet to be approved by the people, opposition political forces and the Constituent Assembly. The earthquake has been a big lesson for the country’s policymakers in assessing their shortcomings in planning, designing and implementing disaster management plans. However, the moves made by individual and organised youths after the earthquake has to be highly appreciated for their effectiveness and efficiency. The responsible governmental, non-governmental and private agencies, especially the army and police, have performed their duties responsibly during the relief period and received deserved appreciation from the people through the mass and social media.

The logistics

The government’s Settlement Relocation Plan aims to rehabilitate some 36,000 earthquake-affected victims and survivor families from 300 settlements. However, very few of these families have accepted the resettlement plan: 360 in Rasuwa, 78 in Okhaldhunga, 64 in Sindhupalchok, 18 in Gorkha and 11 in Solukhumbu.

This may sound shocking and unbelievable to some people. From the point of view of geologists and lawmakers, the decision to relocate the victims and survivors is theoretically and technically appropriate. Their concern for the earliest possible relocation of the victims in the affected districts prior to the monsoon season is appreciated. From a humanitarian point of view, rapid resettlement is necessary considering the victims’ socio-economic position and situation. However, when reaching such a decision, socio-cultural realities, apart from technical and financial aspects, need to be assessed.

Sentimental attachment

There is a need to understand that the resettlement plan is meant primarily for the people, and it is not only about the construction of earthquake-resistant physical structures in geologically appropriate locations. The planners have to take into account the social fabric, cultural needs and economic priorities of the victims and affected communities. The emotions and sentiments of the inhabitants and the societal structures in which they have been living need to be appreciated. Human beings carry sentimental baggage with them. They are social animals and thus the factors of kith and kin, community and society need to be considered in the plan. The economic needs and inter-dependency and socio-cultural compatibility are other factors that play a crucial role in the victims’ decision to accept the relocation offer.

Currently, the fact is that some of the locations that have been identified by the experts are uninhabitable, and further suffering could result for the people if they decide to continue living there for sentimental reasons. In some places, the whole village has been destroyed, and in other locations, there are risks of heavy landslides during the monsoon. In such a situation, it is not possible nor advisable to make resettlement plans in the very locations the victims have been living in.

Lessons from Tarai

After the floods of 1993 in the Tarai, the plan to reconstruct houses for the victims failed despite the provision to resettle them along the highway in well-designed concrete houses. Some victims accepted the houses but never treated them as their homes. Many of them have rented out the government-donated houses to generate additional income. Most of the flood victims went back to reconstruct their old houses in their own neighbourhoods so that they could live with their families and communities. These communities not only provided solace to the victims during the socio-economic crisis but also were their source of livelihood. With no contact with members of their social circles, the victims’ social, cultural and economic needs were not met. That was the reason for their sentimental attachment to the villages and locations where they grew up and developed their identities. The well-organised centuries-old socio-cultural and economic systems made up the members’ world. They lived together in pain and joy. Thus there is a need to understand the dynamics and factors of rejection of free housing facilities, although it’s sad news from the government’s point of view.

Against this backdrop, the Settlement Relocation Plan needs to be revised with new options and a new framework. Meeting the socio-cultural and economic needs of the victims is the primary factor that should be kept in mind. Individual victims may not want to stay in isolated locations, despite the planned house being centrally-located and earthquake-resistant. As interdependent social animals, the victims need to live in the company of their own community members. Here they feel more comfortable, relaxed and secure, allowing them to meet their expectations, needs and desires with the support of their society. Nobody wants to move from a familiar environment to a strange place unless they are forced to do so. In today’s federal democratic republic, the people’s views and expectations matter a great deal, and they should be respected while planning the relocation of the earthquake victims. A multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach is necessary to overcome these issues. We need to deal with the crises of poor rural people, especially those who have been severely affected by the earthquake.

Nepali is an anthropologist

Published: 19-07-2015 07:56

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