Traditional approach to doing things led to delay in reconstruction

  • Interview Govinda Raj Pokharel

Apr 24, 2017-

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the greatest national tragedy in living memory. Still a majority of earthquake survivors are living in temporary shelters. The reconstruction of other infrastructures like schools, health posts, heritage sites, drinking water facilities, government buildings, bridges and roads has also been mired in delays. Mukul Humagain and Binod Ghimire spoke to Govinda Raj Pokharel, the CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority, the main coordinating agency handling the reconstruction process, about the reasons behind the slow pace of progress, the changes he has introduced to expedite reconstruction, the shortage of funds and the lessons learnt.  


At what stage are we in the reconstruction process?

The process of identifying earthquake survivors and distributing the first instalment of housing aid of Rs50,000 to them has been completed. Anticipating the challenges in distributing the second instalment of housing aid, we dispatched Rs12.5 billion to the affected districts. But that was not enough, as receiving the second instalment requires families to have built the foundation of their houses in accordance with the prescribed guidelines, which in turn requires adequate human resources. So we started deploying the government machinery, including the Army. We now have data indicating an increase in the number of trained human resources by a few thousands. But the duration of the training itself is 50 days. Add to that the various governmental processes, and the time required to complete the training becomes almost three-months long, which is about the length of my second inning at the NRA. We have now received about 35,000 applications for the second instalment.

What has led to the delay?

What has partly contributed to the delay is the strike by government secretaries and the transfer of other officials. And almost 300 government appointed engineers left the districts they were working in. But the major issue is of flexibility; even minor changes in the working modalities, including the format of basic forms, have to be approved by the Cabinet. This traditional approach to doing things has led to the delay. We have basically lost a year of reconstruction. But in the process, we have learnt important lessons and we are taking corrective measures. 

I have sent many proposals to the Cabinet. We have proposed providing Rs200,000 to quake survivors in vulnerable areas who are willing to shift to a new location. We have also identified about 9,420 quake survivors who do not own any land, and have proposed providing them with Rs200,00 to buy land. We have proposed deploying engineers from the private sector. The government’s job is to provide the housing aid to the quake survivors, and to ensure that they have access to the necessary human resources and the relevant information. We are thinking of ways to carry out this job more efficiently. 

What kind of a response to your proposals are you expecting?

If all the jobs are to be done in the traditional manner by the ministries, why was the NRA formed in the first place? The NRA was supposed to expedite various processes. No doubt there should be ministerial leadership, but it should be limited to supervision and prevention of abuse. The NRA should be able to make extensive use of the private sector, whose work will be assessed on the basis of performance. This will make the reconstruction process more efficient. We have had discussions with various stakeholders including the donors about it, and they have shown a positive response to the approach we are seeking to adopt. 

Specifically, what changes have you introduced since you assumed the helm of the NRA, replacing your predecessor who was perceived as being incompetent?

I have been thinking of innovative ways to fulfil the shortage of human resources and mobilise them efficiently. I have tried to inject more flexibility in terms of making better use of the private sector and non-governmental organisations. We don’t have the latitude or the time to start completely anew. We have to introduce some changes while addressing the shortcomings of the past. 

Distributing the first tranche of housing aid was easy, but the disbursal of subsequent instalments is based on progress.  Assessing progress requires human resources, and I have taken initiatives to bridge the gap in the required workforce. Policy changes require time, as they don’t depend on my wish alone. But there have been some positive changes. 

Still the survivors will not get a sense of relief unless there is concrete progress on the ground.

The problem is not so much with the finances as it is with human resources, such as the unwillingness of some engineering colleges to work with us. We have commenced discussions on mobilising Master’s level engineering students. UNDP Nepal is helping with the mobilisation of 27 mid-level experts. When we sent engineers to about 114,000 households to conduct surveys and impart awareness and knowledge, we found that only 31 percent are constructing houses. Two-thirds cited the lack of human resources as the reason why they were not building houses. 

This data is about a month old; we believe about 40 percent houses have been built or are in the process of being built. This, I think, should be considered satisfactory, because the construction of the houses depends on the willingness of the people. If they’re not willing, the government cannot force them to build houses. 

What about the reconstruction of other infrastructures like heritage sites, hospitals and schools?

There have been delays in the reconstruction of heritage sites, particularly in finding the right approach. We haven’t been able to win the confidence of the communities. Some are in favour of preservation; other want to demolish the old structures and build new ones. There have also been delays in the reconstruction of large hospitals, but we have made satisfactory progress in rebuilding small health posts and schools. Around 4,000 schools are at various stages of reconstruction.  

There are reports about the gap in funding for reconstructing schools?

It’s true that only a third of the required budget has been ensured. Big colleges require large funds, but we can construct many primary schools in rural areas with the funds at our disposal.

What about the funding gap in the overall reconstruction, particularly the failure to convert the pledged amount by donors into actual aid?

Of the pledged $4.1 billion, agreements for $3.1 billion have been signed. We may be able to increase that, but it would be unrealistic to expect to receive the total pledged amount. I don’t want to point fingers at individual donors. There have been shortcomings on our part as well. Donors require project details; we haven’t been able to furnish those. 

But we will still fall short. We only have about a third of the required $9.38 billion for reconstruction. We will have to sign some bilateral agreements.  We should organise a workshop on the occasion of the second anniversary of the donor conference on 25 June, 2017 to share experiences and to try to inform donors about where our shortcomings lay. 

Some claim that our political instability and bureaucratic non-cooperation are responsible for causing disillusionment among the donors. 

There may be some truth to that. The initial reconstruction act had given a stronger mandate to the NRA’s CEO. Now it’s more difficult for me to make decisions. I haven’t found donors’ enthusiasm dwindling. I consult them about different ideas frequently and they are excited. They understand that our houses in rural areas cannot comply 100 percent with standard guidelines. There are some aspects to the reconstruction process, such as resilient infrastructures, transparency and accountability, that cannot be compromised, but we can be flexible about other aspects. 

What’s your take on the way various non-governmental organisations working on quake-affected areas are functioning?

There is a long process to give them approval to work, but once the approval is given, there is hardly any monitoring. That may have led to some irregularities. We need to change that: expedite the approval process but monitor their work 

closely. That will also prevent the duplication of work. 

Finally, what changes have there been in the two years since the earthquakes? What are the lessons learnt?

People are more aware about following building codes and constructing resilient structures. Rescue and relief are different from long-term readiness. It’s not the government but the society and the individuals who have to adapt themselves and adopt resilient practices. Leadership can change, but it is the institutional robustness that is important. 

Published: 24-04-2017 08:00

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