Falling through the cracks
The historic town of Harisiddhi is just 2km from the Ring Road, and still bears the scars of the earthquake from seven years ago. There are ruins of abandoned homes, and concrete high rises have come up where older houses collapsed.
As many as 850 houses were destroyed or damaged in this town, leaving 24 residents and two visitors dead, 150 more were injured. As Harisiddhi rebuilds, it has also been transformed from a historic city with heritage buildings that defined the core area, into one that is no different from the rest of Kathmandu.
The town is on the highway to Godavari, now a jumble of multi storey cement structures over narrow alleyways. Here and there, we catch a glimpse of some old houses with tile roofs, empty lots where houses once stood, rubble overgrown with vegetation that still has not been cleared after seven years.
Many families who lost their homes relocated to other parts of the Valley, while others still wait for assistance the government promised for rebuilding.
Harisiddhi is a microcosm of the Valley’s many historic Newa towns — how the movers and shakers were the first to get compensation to rebuild, while women-led households, Dalits and some ethnic groups with limited ownership or inadequate documents have not benefited from the recovery (see below).
“When they decided on compensation, they forgot to consider the traditional makeup of Harisiddhi. Even today many residents here buy and sell land in the old way. Not everyone has a land title, even if they have been living here for generations,” explains Ganesh Kumar Maharjan, Chair of Ward 29. “This has delayed aid for many people.”
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Initially after the 2015 earthquake, the government committed to give Rs200,000 in three tranches to each family whose house was destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The amount was later increased to Rs300,000. The first installment of Rs50,000 was provided when the house owner signed an agreement with the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the second Rs150,000 on completion of plinth level construction, and the last after completion of the roof level.
But to get the second and third tranches, a certification from the NRA engineers indicating that the house complied with seismic-resistant design and building code was mandatory. Land ownership papers were also needed, and many in Harisiddhi were deprived of their compensation despite years of scouring government offices.
In Ward 29, 252 households qualified for the assistance, and only 86 had land ownership papers. Some 58 houses are still waiting for money. The story is similar in Ward 28 which is still getting enquiries from survivors.
Land registration in Nepal began in 1965, but in many ancient settlements like Harisiddhi, the dense cluster of houses in a small area as well as unclear division of land among family members posed a problem in registration. The language barrier and other social factors meant that many still do not have land titles.
“It is a shame that houses that were built on once-public land have got their land titles but not the original inhabitants who have been living here for generations,” says Bharat Maharjan, a researcher on Newa settlements.
To be sure, the government did facilitate the registration of land for survivors after the earthquake, but the latter say the window to register was too narrow and the process unclear.
“They should be able to start the process at any time. But when they define the time, it becomes difficult as not everyone may have money for the process. When people have money, the window to register may not be open,” says Rajesh Maharjan, Chair of Ward 28.
When the earthquake struck on the day of 25 April 2015, little did Sita Kapali think she would be experiencing aftershocks even after seven years.
Sita, now 65, lives with her daughter Geeta and her grandson in a two-storey house outside the core area of Harisiddhi.
The family was lucky that their old family house did not fully collapse and no one was killed. But the family could not afford to tear down the damaged home and build a new one. They had hoped the Rs300,000 assistance from the government would at least help in repairs.
Two years after the earthquake, the family got the ‘red book’ and the first tranche of the housing assistance after their home was assessed. But the money was not enough to demolish the house, let alone rebuild. Moreover, the family did not have land ownership papers, which delayed the process further.
“They said we did not qualify for the second tranche because we did not have land ownership papers. My brother made the rounds of government offices and finally got it made last year. But when the engineers came by again, they said we could not get the remaining money, they did not say why,” says Geeta.
As per the clauses for housing assistance, the second tranche is released only after the reconstruction process has started and assessed by engineers. But this family simply has no finance to do that or get a loan from anywhere.
Before the pandemic, Sita worked as a house help for families, but she has not been able to work since last year after her husband died, further straining the famaily’s finances.
For now, the three continue to live in the old house mending the cracks with a slurry of mud and water. Her son and daughter-in-law have been living separately in a rented room since the earthquake because there is not enough room in the house for them. Her other son is working outside Kathmandu Valley.
Says Sita: “It is ok for now but what will we do if there is another earthquake?”
Babu Kaji Kapali and Hasina Kapali
Babu Kaji Kapali, 70, has three brothers. In theory the four brothers had separated, but they lived in the same house. When the earthquake occurred, the three-storey house collapsed and the roof caved in.
“When the government announced the assistance, we were hoping each family would get it but they said only one person from one house can get it,” says Babu Kaji. “But we were all living separately already.”
He sold a plot of his land and took out loans to build a four-room house in his farmland. He hopes the ownership papers of this house and land will qualify him for the grant. “We have to live somewhere. It will help repay debts,” says Babu Kaji
The land ownership of the old family house is with his elder brother who is Hasina Kapali’s father-in-law, but even they have not been able to get the money.
When Hasina’s father-in-law fell sick, they needed to move him from the temporary shelter. The family pooled in whatever money they had, and took loans from the bank and community center to rebuild the house. But they have only received the first tranche of government assistance. She does not know why they have not gotten the money despite having the land ownership paper.
“I have been to the government offices several times but I’ve lost hope now. Clearly they are not giving money to the poor, those with better economic conditions than ours got it already. Maybe because we are further away from the core Harisiddhi village they missed us,” says Hasina.
Shrawan Kumar Maharjan
Shrawan Kumar Maharjan has forgotten the number of times he has visited the ward office in the last seven years. In his latest visit last week, the 40-year-old craftsman returned empty handed yet again. He was there to see if the ward could help him claim the housing assistance.
After their house collapsed in 2015, Shrawan and his family lived in the temporary shelter for years, waiting for the government assistance. Two years ago, he took out a loan and sold a plot of his land to rebuild the house.
“This money is not enough to build a house in Kathmandu. And yet, I keep coming to the ward office to inquire about the government compensation because I would have at least paid off the interest on my loans,” says Shrawan.
Like many here, the family did not have land ownership papers, so he filed for those at the Land Revenue Office. He still has not got the document.
Says Shrawan, “We have lived here for generations, but we don’t have the papers. I don’t know why they cannot give us the money. If it is only about the land titles, then there are others without it who have already got theirs. The government has forgotten about us earthquake survivors.”
Dinesh Maharjan, 31, was in Dakshinkali with his family when the earthquake struck. Because the temple did not suffer any damage, he did not think the tremors were strong. But when he drove through the city towards Harisiddhi, he saw more and more damage. He knew then that his old mud house did not stand a chance.
For the next three years, the family lived in temporary shelters moving from one place to another. “We did not have land titles or building permits, so they did not initially give us the money,” says Dinesh, repeating a familiar plight.
The family decided to move to the core area and build a house there, but they did not have ownership papers for this land either. They took out loans and sold other property.
“We managed to get the first tranche after proving we have been living here for generations. We had to bring four witnesses for that, it was a lot of hassle,” says Dinesh. The family received the first tranche in February 2020, and the rest of the amount only in July of last year.
He has submitted his application for the land ownership papers in the Land Revenue Office but doesn’t know how far the process has gone. “We have the compensation now, but my paperwork for land title is still stuck at the Land Revenue Office,” he says. “If I don’t get the papers, we will have to go through the entire process again the next time there is an earthquake.”