Kamala Shrestha (pictured, right) wanted to build a new earthquake-resistant house after her two-storey ancestral home in Kathmandu was destroyed by the April 2015 earthquake. But the Rs300,000 housing grant for survivors was not enough to build a decent home.
Her four-member family lived in a tent for some months before moving into a rented room.
Her husband went to Qatar to earn enough to rebuild their home. But he was cheated by his employer, and they could not begin work.
Then last year, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) gave a deadline to survivors who had already received the first tranche of Rs50,000 to start rebuilding their houses before January 2018 to be eligible for the second instalment. Shrestha could not meet the deadline.
So, like her neighbours, the 35-year-old took a Rs200,000 loan from a local cooperative, and built a one-room tin roofed shed in just three weeks so she could get the second and final instalments of her NRA grant, and pay back the loan.
The NRA’s January 2018 deadline was so unrealistic many families missed it. It was extended to April 2018, and then again to July. Because rumours spread that those who missed the deadline would have to return the first tranche and their children would not get birth and citizenship certificates, they quickly built sheds.
“I had already received and spent the first tranche, so I felt trapped,” says Shrestha. “I was worried that my family would be black-listed, and my children would not be able to go to school.”
Like many others, Shrestha’s new home is so small her family will not fit in it. They could add floors later, but that would make it vulnerable to future earthquakes.
Thousands of families in the quake zone are now hurriedly building one-room structures, fearing the repercussions of not being able to meet the July deadline. The NRA can now claim reconstruction has speeded up, but most homes are not fit to live in.
“The government’s housing reconstruction and retrofit grants are a huge opportunity to leverage safer housing, but it could be lost if tranche disbursement deadlines continue to force people to build homes that do not meet their living requirements simply to get the grant,” explains Siobhan Kennedy at the Housing Recovery and Reconstruction Platform (HRRP).
When the NRA first announced the deadline last year, only 42,576 private houses had been completed. That figure shot up to 196,149 this July — a four-fold increase in just one year. The NRA and the government can boast that they are meeting targets, but the figures hide the fact that a significant number of the new houses are small, one-room makeshift structures.
Sangita Tamang, 36, is building a one-room house also too small for her seven-member family. Her old mud and brick house perched near Shivapuri National Park was damaged by the earthquake, but the family continued to live there after plastering the cracks.
Tamang wanted to build a proper two-room house after her husband returned with savings from Saudi Arabia next winter, but she had to build it in a hurry to meet the deadline.
“This new house will be our kitchen, but we will continue to live in our old house,” admits Tamang, who adds she was worried about her children not getting citizenship documents and missing out on education and jobs in future.
The NRA denies threatening to black-list earthquake-affected families for missing the deadline. “People will have to return the first tranche if they really do not want to build new houses, but the government cannot deny them their basic rights,” says spokesperson Manohar Ghimire.
But the rumours have already caused confusion, forcing people to build houses for fear of losing the next tranche, or being debarred from citizenship. The new deadline is next week, but over 300,000 families have yet not claimed the second instalment of their housing grants. The deadline will have to be extended again.
The NRA was scheduled to meet this week to decide on the extension, but the government abruptly sacked CEO Yubaraj Bhusal as part of a purge against officials appointed by the previous NC government. The meeting has been postponed indefinitely.
The NRA has been plagued by political interference and active non-cooperation from line ministries since it was set up in late 2015 to coordinate reconstruction. It has seen four CEOs, depending on which party was in power.
This leaves earthquake survivors once again in uncertainty and confusion.
Those who were trying to meet the July deadline despite the lack of money, masons, and raw materials this rainy season want a realistic new cutoff date so they can really build back better, safer and stronger.
Small is suitable
Kumar Tamang, 36, lived with his wife and son in an isolated two-storey house atop a hill in Panauti municipality of Kavre district. The earthquake not only destroyed his mud and stone home, but also blocked their water supply.
His wife had to walk up and down the hill every day to fetch water, so he sold his ancestral land and bought a smaller plot where he recently built a one-room house.
“My father built a large house because we had a joint family,” says Tamang. “We do not need such a big place anymore because our family is very small.” The new house is adjacent to two other one-room houses built by neighbours Aite Tamang and Junimaya Tamang who share the same long tin roof (pictured, above).
Not all the houses are being built small to meet the NRA grant deadline, out-migration and depopulation of the earthquake districts means there are fewer people in the mountains. Traditional joint families are also breaking apart, even in the villages. And some families have split deliberately to claim more reconstruction grants from the government.
Aite Tamang’s four-member family is now the largest in the neighbourhood, and he says they don’t really need a two-storey house anymore.
Another neighbour, 33-year-old Junimaya Tamang, has also built a one-room house because she doesn’t have children, and her husband just returned from Malaysia after three years. “Why would we need a big house when there are just two of us?” she asks.
A survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2015 showed 86% of the 700,000 damaged houses had two or multiple floors. The UK-funded Common Feedback Project published a new survey report in May, which shows 84% of the newly built houses are just one-storey.
Survivors are building smaller houses due to multiple factors like migration, shrinking family size, inadequate land, increased construction cost, and the pressure to rebuild by the July 2018 deadline.
Civil engineer Anil Parajuli sees no problem if a one-room house suits a small family.
But if the small houses are built to meet the deadline, they may not be strong enough to withstand future earthquakes.”
Under an ultimatum
The latest Community Perception Report by the UK-funded Common Feedback Project in May 2018 shows over one-third of earthquake-affected families rebuilt houses to meet the NRA’s July deadline. Half of these are one-room houses that are just sheds. Another 12% said they quickly rebuilt small houses fearing that they would be black-listed if they missed the deadline. Only 6% of families said they rebuilt homes after managing enough money from sources other than the NRA.
Broken promises, Om Astha Rai