Year of tragedy, of hope deferred and wait

  • Akhilesh Upadhyay
- Post Report, Kathmandu

Apr 24, 2016-In Bulbule, Hira Bahadur Shrestha finally started rebuilding his fallen house early this month. After one long year. 

Alongside two of his family members—elder brother Akal and 19-year-old son Yantra—he was almost done with putting up the walls when a visiting engineer told them their stone-and-mud structure had serious construction flaws. That it was yet again prone to earthquake hazards. 

“We waited for one full year but no help came. I know this house isn’t all that safe, but we need a roof above our head this monsoon,” said Hira. “We saw one monsoon and one winter pass by without a roof above.” 

The farming family had waited enough.

The village of Bulbule is off the beaten track even by the poor standards of Sindhupalchok, the mountain district worst hit by the earthquakes last year. While Gorkha was the epicentre of the first big one (7.8M), on April 25, Sindhupalchok was devastated by a major aftershock on the same day. 

The Shresthas and a host of other families we visited in the village and adjoining ones attribute their survival to their bhagya—fate. “It had just rained and we were all busy preparing for corn plantation.” 

Fortunately, it was also a Saturday and the children were away from their schools—children like Suman and Manoj (pictured), both third-graders, whose school collapsed. 

In all, Nepal lost 38,000 classrooms to the earthquake. Most of them like the ones above are still crying out for help.

Of the nearly 9,000 deaths in the earthquake in the 14 most-affected districts, Sindhupalchok saw the highest number of casualties—3,500 lives were lost in the district.

“It’s been a long wait,” said Hira. “But without any results. Sir, do you have any idea whether I will still receive some help—from the government or any others?” he wondered.

It has largely been that kind of year. One of tragedy, of hope deferred, of a never-ending wait, of empty promises, and one made worse by the huge communication gap between the service providers (both government agencies and non-government actors) and the earthquake victims. Yes, a minority of the population have received some help, but for most of those who lost their family members and homes, it has been a time of deep disenchantment. For the government and various others, including the international community and I/NGOs, it has been a period of lost opportunities.  

Most families we met in three villages in Sindhupalchok said they had received two tranches of Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 each from the government, belatedly, for “transitional shelter”. But they were not sure whether and when they would receive the final Rs 200,000 that officials have promised them. Hira, who we met in Bulbule, was one of them. 

It’s been a snail-paced reconstruction effort. 

The biggest story in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes last year had to do with how young people rose up to the challenges posed by the biggest natural disaster in our living memory. In our anniversary edition “Year of Reckoning”, we feature three young heroes—Janak BK in Sindhuli, Nabin Tamang in Sindhupalchok and Sudan Gurung in Kathmandu. 

And the government’s failure to carry forward the momentum started by our young heroes all over Nepal has been the past year’s most depressing story. 

Some critics have even argued that the Koirala government’s, and indeed the then finance minister Ram Sharan Mahat’s, along with the National Planning Commission’s landmark achievement, the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), was an ad-hoc document that misled the public. 

We, however, believe that the PDNA was important, for it was able give a face to the catastrophe, and proved crucial in mobilising the international community. 

According to the PDNA, which came out in June, there are over 8,790 casualties and 22,300 injuries, and it estimated that the lives of eight million people, almost one-third the population of Nepal, had been impacted by the earthquakes, which included the aftershocks that followed the major jolt on April 25. 

Thirty-one of 75 districts were found to have been affected, out of which 14 were declared “crisis-hit”, or “most affected”.

The destruction, according to the PDNA, was so widespread that it included residential and government buildings, heritage sites, schools and health posts, rural roads, bridges, water supply systems, agricultural land, trekking routes, hydropower plants and sports facilities. Entire settlements, including popular tourist destinations like Langtang, were swept away by landslides and avalanches triggered by the earthquakes. In all, over half a million houses were destroyed; the number has pegged over 750,000 according to a recent count. 

The damage exposed the weaknesses of houses that did not have any seismic-resistant features or had not been built in accordance with the building codes. One of our articles laments how the lessons of safe building practices have again been ignored. Another deals with how tourism has gradually made a rebound in Langtang and the next one with how Tamangs in Rasuwa and elsewhere are being unfairly profiled by the service providers--some of whom have been quick to draw ethnic stereotypes.

The problems in the outlying districts are clearly the effects of paralysis at the centre.

The National Reconstru- ction Authority (NRA) has been held hostage due to the wrangling among major political parties, whose greed over the billions of pledged funds and reconstruction money is no longer a secret. 

Govind Raj Pokhrel, the first CEO of the NRA, believes that the biggest setback for reconstruction has been “overpoliticisation” of the process. The former NPC vice-chairman, who enjoyed broad support from the donors and the bureaucracy, not least for his leadership in developing the PDNA, was subsequently replaced by UML loyalist Sushil Gyewali. 

Gyewali, a government under-secretary in his previous position, has struggled to put together some 200 bureaucrats to get the NRA up and running. But it’s more the fault of the Oli government that it chose him over more qualified candidates. 

Takuya Kamata, the World Bank Country Manager for Nepal, defended the NRA for making “important progress in terms of policies, legal procedures and direction--all of which are necessary to advance reconstruction.” 

And mayhem of the sort seen in Haiti is not entirely lost on the World Bank official. “Experience such as Haiti demonstrates what can happen when international organisations, NGOs, private foundations and the government move ahead quickly without planning and coordination,” he says. “The results are disparities in assistance received, exclusion of affected populations, and misuse of funds.”

Nonetheless, it’s among the affected population that we found our stories of hope. 

In Pangretar-3, Sindhupa- lchok, we came across an inspirational character, Krishna Bahadur Tamang. The 57-year-old is a mason-carpenter (“I do all kinds of masonry work,” he told us). He has been a house-builder for the last 25 years.

His house was knocked down by the April 25 earthquake, but we were surprised to learn that he hadn’t rebuilt it yet. He doesn’t remember exactly how many houses he has built in Sindhupalchok and in his own village. “They must be close to 250 or 300,” he said. 

So why is he not building his own? 

The master mason lapsed into silence for a while. 

“I want to build safer houses now,” he said, his voice tinged with both guilt and hope. Guilt because the 

traditional masonry that he had learned from his forebears couldn’t withstand the big quakes and hope because he had now received important assistance from engineers on building quake-resilient houses. 

“I have received basic orientation from engineers,” he said. “And I am fairly confident that when the next big one comes, these houses will not fall down as they did last year.”

Published: 24-04-2016 08:52

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