After local elections last year put mayors, village heads and ward committees in office, there was widespread expectation that much-delayed earthquake relief and reconstruction would gather pace.
But nine months after local elections were held, there has been no perceptible difference in delivery. Only 15% of families displaced by the 2015 earthquakes have rebuilt their homes, and 85% are still living in temporary shelters, damaged buildings or in rented rooms.
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Krishna Prasad Sapkota, former Chair of the Kavre district development committee, says bluntly: “We squandered the opportunity to expedite reconstruction after local elections.”
The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) claims that no earthquake-displaced family will have to live in temporary shelter by the monsoon in July. But that is hard to believe because more than 200,000 families have not even started rebuilding homes. Only 112,450 houses have been rebuilt so far, and 376,027 are under construction.
Just about every candidate contesting local elections in the 14 earthquake-affected districts had promised to speed up reconstruction if elected. But there isn’t much evidence that elections have improved accountability.
To be sure, some municipalities and village councils have set up reconstruction funds from which families whose reconstruction grants have been delayed can borrow. Some municipal and village councils are paying for masons and carpenters. People can also complain to their mayors of village councils if NRA engineers delay approvals, or are not responsive.
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However, in general the role of local governments in post-earthquake reconstruction has been reduced to that of a sidekick to the NRA and the national administration. As a result, people have lost hope that elections would make up for lost time in relief work.
“People had pinned their hopes on us, but we have not been given the power to decide,” admits Dhulikhel mayor Ashok Kumar Byanju. “If local governments are not allowed to take charge, reconstruction won’t happen even in the next 10 years.”
Byanju is also the coordinator of the Municipalities Association of Nepal (MuAN), and says the guidelines governing the NRA have prevented local governments from playing a part in post-earthquake reconstruction.
After the three tiers of elections last year, Nepal may have become a federal country with executive, legislative and judicial powers devolved to local governments, but the NRA has not undergone a similar restructuring. Its district-level structures continue to exist, but they report directly to Kathmandu, not to the new village councils or municipalities.
NRA spokesperson Bhishma Bhushal says restructuring the existing set-up and revising guidelines would create even more confusion about reconstruction, slowing it down further. He adds: “Local governments do not have the human resources and institutional capacity to lead reconstruction. They are not even able to spend their own budgets.”
Byanju of the MuAN strongly disagrees, saying that local governments are already distributing social security allowances and distributing reconstruction grants will not be difficult. Municipalities and village councils are demanding that they be given the authority to at least deploy engineers and distribute housing grants.
Former NRA CEO Govind Raj Pokharel is not hopeful that will happen. “It’s not just the NRA, even line ministries do not want to decentralise their power, and donors also doubt that local governments will distribute reconstruction grants impartially and transparently.”
In off the record interviews, NRA and donor officials say they do not trust newly-elected mayors and village council chiefs who they say just want their hands on the money and are not really interested in speeding up reconstruction.
However, Min Bahadur Shahi of the group Humanitarian Accountability Monitoring Initiative (HAMI) says that is the wrong approach: “We should not exclude local governments from post-earthquake reconstruction, we should let them show that they are accountable and build their capacity.”