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Temporary relief

Monday, March 27th, 2017
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Earthquake survivors wait for reconstruction grants that are too little too late

RAJNEESH BHANDARI in SINDHUPALCHOK

It’s midnight. Rain is making a din on the tin roof of Kanchaman Dong’s one-room, four-bed shelter. This has been his family home for the past two years after the April 2015 earthquake.

Kanchaman tried to ignore the rain and cold, and just hoped for a warm sunrise in the village of Duwachaur, a jolting 8-hour ride across a rough mountain road. The earthquake killed seven members of the Dong community in Duwachaur: every household lost someone. A Lalitpur-based relief agency promised to rebuild the 36 homes destroyed here, but after making nine tin-roof huts, it didn’t come back.

The relief agency says it left construction material for the remaining houses but had to abandon the project because of a disagreement with villagers about their contribution to the reconstruction effort. It also says the Chief District Office in Chautara didn’t show much interest in the help it was bringing.

Duwachaur is a story repeated right across the 14 earthquake-affected districts. It is a tale of how after initial interest, the government, aid agencies and relief groups slowly lost interest in helping survivors.

Meanwhile, Kanchaman Dong has just got the Rs 50,000 first instalment of the government reconstruction grant, but it isn’t enough to buy the needed materials. In many earthquake-hit villages, the first instalment has been spent to buy food and essentials, and the rebuilding never started.

Kanchaman Dong’s biggest item of expenditure is labour and transport costs. He says: “It is the transportation cost that keeps me afraid of attempting to build a house.”

On the other side of the mountains from Duwachaur, in the village of Thokarpa, Tek Bahadur Mahat, 33, is rebuilding a one-storey home with help from his family members. But the Rs 50,000 is long gone. Mahat has already spent Rs 300,000 on 10 trucks of sand and gravel, Rs 200,000 on bricks, Rs 300,000 on iron rods, Rs 250,000 on cement and Rs 250,000 on timber for windows and doors.

By the time his house is finished, Mahat’s home will cost five times more than what the government has promised in reconstruction grants.

The Ministry of Urban Development’s Design Catalogue for Reconstruction of Earthquake Resistant Houses has designs for homes made of stone and mud mortar, brick and mud mortar, stone and cement, and brick and cement. The cost to build these seismic-resistant designs is between Rs 1-3 million.

Reconstruction in Kathmandu is even more expensive. Umesh Maharjan from Lalitpur is building a six-room house after his previous one was damaged in the quake. He hired a contractor for Rs 3.5 million to rebuild his house – 10 times more than the grant he is getting from the government.

A government estimate showed that 602,257 houses were destroyed, and 285,099 houses partially damaged. It pledged Rs 200,000 in three instalments for reconstruction, and last year Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal raised that to Rs 300,000.

But after two years, the government grants have been used to complete only 18,315 houses, while 34,732 are under construction. “The cost of making a house with the seismic-resistant design will cost more in rural areas because of the transportation cost of the materials,” said Machaman Dangol of the Department of Urban Development.

Both in villages and cities, it is clear that the government grant, even when it does finally come, will not be enough. After completing their houses, both urban and rural builders have one thing in common: wait for the remaining grant from the government, and take on a huge debt for the remaining amount.

Tek Bahadur Mahat in Thokarpa, for instance, invested half of the amount from his savings and took loans of Rs 700,000 from friends to build his house.

“I hope the rest of the reconstruction grant will be useful in repaying the debt in 2-3 years with interest,” Mahat said. “The government’s Rs 300,000 doesn’t even buy the roofing material.”

In Kathmandu, Yubaraj Khatiwada, former governor of the Nepal Rastra Bank and ex-chief of the National Planning Commission, is worried that indebtedness will rise in households with no other source of income. “The households without remittance income, no surplus cash crops or no local business, and those who do not qualify for housing grants for one reason or another, will be worst hit.”

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