By Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, Jan. 15: Lali Maya Shrestha was 82 when the earthquake struck on April 25, 2015 and gave way the top floor of her three-storeyed mud house in Bholo, Lalitpur Metropolitan City – 9. The technicians who came to survey the area after the quake declared her eligible for the reconstruction grant.
But, of advanced age and living alone, Shrestha could not go to her ward office to sign the reconstruction agreement which is mandatory to receive the Rs. 300,000-grant. According to her neighbours, representatives from the ward visited her home a few times but to the best of their knowledge, she did not receive the assistance.
Shrestha died in 2018 and her daughters sold the dilapidated house.
Similarly, the 7.8-magnitude tremor claimed the house where Sabitri Dhakal lived with her extended family. The two-storey non-concrete structure in Jadibuti, Kathmandu Metropolitan City – 32 was left standing; but barely. The inspectors gave it a red sticker signifying that it was damaged beyond repair. Yet, because of financial considerations and since the property had not been officially divided among the kin, Dhakal’s family chose to remain in their damaged abode. They finally demolished it last August and are currently rebuilding but they missed the December 15 deadline to apply for the government’s reconstruction grant.
According to the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), 834,911 households were eligible for the post-quake housing grants. Of these, agreements were signed with 95.4 per cent, meaning 4.6 per cent of the eligible beneficiaries got left out. And because the mid-December application deadline has already expired, those left out have permanently lost the opportunity to obtain the rebuilding aid.
This, while unfortunate, should not reflect on the NRA, expressed Sushil Gyawali, chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Reconstruction Authority. “The Authority was very liberal in setting the deadline. We considered the pandemic, the festivals and all the different constraints the people were facing,” he said, urging everyone to remember that it had been five years since the seism and a vast majority of the eligible victims had been incorporated into the grant scheme. “We cannot wait for everyone forever. We cannot remain in an unending state of reconstruction. So, we had to set the December time limit.”
But while the NRA may have considered a lot of things, it did not consider the practical limitations in people’s lives, said Dhakal. “The first year after the earthquake was spent in fright, trauma and confusion. People spent the second year recollecting themselves. This year was lost to COVID-19. So, we [the victims] only had two years to manage the necessary financial and other resources to enable us to build a house.”
Moreover, the process was marred by a dearth of information and bureaucracy, said Ila Sharma, former election commissioner and an earthquake victim.
“The government announced building grants and subsidised loans but did not facilitate the affected groups’ access to those schemes. The system wasn’t victim-friendly, there were too many formalities and no one to clarify or follow-up on the relief announcements. We did not feel the presence of the authorities after the earthquake,” said Sharma, whose house in Sanepa, Lalitpur – 2, was judged to be unsafe by the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction.
CEO Gyawali informed that the NRA worked with the local levels to relay information and used various media to reach out to the public. “Our representatives were present at the ward-level to talk to people. We used various media to get the message out and the NRA also held periodic public hearings in different locations to directly interact with the quake victims,” he said, adding that every citizen could contact their local unit with queries and complaints which would then be conveyed to the Authority.
Sharma did that but was met with indifference. Dhakal’s ward only got active when the deadline approached. In Kakani Rural Municipality, Nuwakot, nearly 12 per cent of the quake victims did not receive the housing aid. Nearly 400 households in Sisdol who were eligible for the grant did not get it. “Our questions about the aid are met with silence from the rural municipality,” complained local Shankar Balami.
The Rural Municipality, for its part, stated that it itself did not know why the houses did not get the funding. “We are trying our best to ensure no one gets left out but have not received any response from the Authority,” shared Man Bahadur Lama, chairman of Kakani Rural Municipality.
Gyawali acknowledged that there had been some lapses in communication over the past year because of the pandemic and all the restrictions it entailed. However, he said that they had been working closely with all the local governments before COVID-19 and had resumed their work after the national and regional lockdowns were lifted.
Meanwhile, there are others like Suman of Bakaiya, Makwanpur who lack the paperwork for the grant. Suman, 44, has been an orphan his entire life. He does not know who birthed him, what his last name is or where he is from. He used to live on the streets of Kathmandu begging and doing odd jobs. Ten years ago, he came to Bakaiya and built a shed out of scrap metal; a shed that got knocked down in 2015.
He has no citizenship and hence, could not access aid. “The ward was very helpful and said they would recommend me to the District Administration Office (DAO) if I could produce a few documents of identity or if someone stood as my witness,” Suman told The Rising Nepal over the phone. “But I have no papers, no birth certificate, nothing. I have no person who trusts me enough to vouch for me in the DAO. I don’t even know what my surname or caste is. Citizenship is an impossible dream for me!”
Similarly, a lack of citizenship had also prevented 73-year-old Maya Gurung of Nalbung, Devghat Rural Municipality – 3, Tanahun from accessing the housing grant. Fortunately, she received her citizenship and was enrolled in the list of beneficiaries in December before the deadline expired.
According to estimates from the Forum for Women, Law, and Development (FWLD), there are over 4 million in Nepal aged 16 and above without citizenship. They might have been deprived of the post-quake support schemes.
The NRA has done phenomenal work for landless earthquake victims, helping 11,437 rebuild in the place they were residing at and supporting 1,351 to purchase land in a new location. Suman wishes it would do something similar for the people without citizenship too.
Meanwhile, many in the core areas of Kathmandu willingly chose not to accept the grant, explained Gyawali. “We observed that many living in central areas of the valley showed no interest in reconstruction because they had other houses to live in. Some also had issues within their families regarding property partition. Many also wanted to construct large, commercial buildings which would have cost much more than the Rs. 300,000 we were providing, so they let it go altogether.”
Dhakal agrees with the last point Gyawali said and states that that is where the problem lies. “Everyone, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas, is given the same amount which is very unscientific.” She gives her own example to emphasise her point. “Had I received the grant; I would have received Rs. 50,000 in the first tranche with which I would have to begin construction. But I had to pay Rs. 60,000 in taxes and preliminary works alone. So, I am at a loss even before I have erected a single storey.”
Gyawali understands that the grant might be insufficient but articulated that the government could not be expected to cover the entire cost of a house. “Some might spend millions to build a mansion while others might be contented with a one-room home. The government only provides the minimum necessary help,” he said.
But that is not enough, said former commissioner Sharma, who urged the government to extend the grant deadline and follow up with the victims effectively and minutely. “If someone in my position was left out and faced difficulties then imagine what an average citizen is going through.”
But Gyawali stressed that the country needed to move forward and that those left out were less than five per cent. “The NRA always stands ready to help but we cannot extend the deadline.”
But numbers should not be interpreted like that, opined Balami. “Sure, when you look at it through a purely mathematical lens, it is less than five per cent. But delve deeper and you see that it includes more than 38,000 people. That’s 38,000 people and their families with no roof over their heads.” he said.