The April 2015 earthquake not only flattened mud-mortar houses but it also destroyed some seemingly sturdy concrete buildings in parts of Kathmandu Valley.
The disaster jolted the government out of deep slumber, and the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development decided to investigate how the Building Code was flouted to create dangerously weak ferrocement structures. The Ministry also vowed to take action against those involved in building and giving permission to violate the design code.
Three years later, with the memory of the earthquake fading, the government has forgotten what it promised. There has been no investigation. No action against the culprits. In fact, buildings are being reconstructed where previous ones were destroyed that still violate the code. This is hardly surprising given how unscrupulous builders and businessmen are, and how much impunity they have enjoyed over the last two decades. A top bureaucrat admits bluntly: “Who do we take action against? Everyone has political connections.”
Until the end of absolute monarchy in 1990, only a few had access to Kathmandu’s corridors of power. Democracy was supposed to give people a say and make rulers accountable, but it ended up fostering political protection for the real estate and building mafia.
An ex-secretary told us: “I do not regret the restoration of democracy, but the truth is impunity has proliferated after 1990.”
In their book Society and Corruption, ex-CIAA Chief Suryanath Upadhyaya and researcher Dipesh Ghimire claim that nearly half the houses built in the Valley have not complied with the Building Code. Engineers confirm that most of the houses that collapsed during the April 2015 earthquake were built without proper design, and with poor quality construction material.
A 2015 damage assessment of reinforced concrete buildings of Kathmandu Valley says 40% constructional materials do not meet the required quality standards. Structural engineer Rajan Suwal puts it this way: “Violation of the Building Code and the use of sub-standard construction materials are a killer combination.” Yet, no house that flouts the Building Code has ever been demolished. Builders and owners often get away by simply bribing officials.
Two decades ago, when he was a young and idealistic government engineer, Buddhi Sagar Thapa had tried to demolish Suraj Arcade, the business complex in Hanuman Dhoka that did not comply with the Building Code. But his team was cornered by local goons in the pay of the Arcade’s owner. He sought police protection, but there was no response. He then called his boss, who told him to “just leave it”. Bhai Kaji Tiwari, Chief of the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, says: “If those involved in violating the Building Code are punished, no one will dare to violate it. But since no one is punished, everyone knows they can get away with it.”