As the country rang in Christmas and New Year, each to great fanfare in its many urban settlements, one group of people would have found nothing to celebrate. In fact, the onset of the latest cold wave that has accompanied the start of the Gregorian New Year would have left millions of earthquake victims scattered across 11 most-affected districts shivering in their makeshift tents, fearing for their very lives. The tarpaulin and corrugated tin sheets don’t provide much protection against the biting cold as mercury continues to dip right across the country. In Gorkha district, which was at the epicenter of the 2015 earthquakes, there was heavy snowfall on Sunday. Most earthquake victims in the district are yet to rebuild their destroyed homes as the first tranche of the post-quake grants, totaling Rs 50,000, has proven woefully inadequate. The government has recently cleared the second tranche (worth Rs 150,000), but it could be months before the victims get this money.
(Around 100,000 of around 600,000 quake victims wouldn’t have even gotten the first installment owing to ‘technical difficulties’ in the approval of their grants.) It does not help when the engineers and technicians deployed to help them build back better go on prolonged strikes, and resign en masse in a huff.
Thankfully, the 1,200 technicians who had resigned have now gone back to work after the government agreed to meet some of their demands. As help from the government has been slow in coming, many quake victims have started rebuilding on their own, but without getting the technical details right these rebuilt infrastructures might also come tumbling down should there be another big earthquake. The glacial pace of reconstruction is inexcusable, if not impossible to understand.
Like all important national issues today, reconstruction was also badly politicized as each political party competed to be seen as more generous to quake victims than the other. The government of Sushil Koirala had announced a post-quake package of Rs 200,000 for each victim family. The incumbent government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal increased this amount to Rs 300,000, apparently to the chagrin of some INGOs that had promised to foot reconstruction bills. It is not clear how the government intends to meet the shortfall. Meanwhile, with each passing day the fate of millions of quake victims is getting more and more precarious.
The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) must share much of the blame. Its vocal chief always claims to be ‘making progress’ but such reassurance will be meaningless to the shivering quake victims. Nearly 19 months after the earthquakes, the NRA is only just completing the preliminary survey of damaged infrastructure, even though Sushil Gyewali has been telling the press that survey works were ‘nearly complete’ right from the start of his tenure as NRA chief at the end of 2015.
Gyewali and his NRA have precious little to show for a year of their ‘hard work’. The prime minister, too, is reportedly unhappy with Gyewali and is thinking about replacing him. This might not be wise as it could mean another protracted battle over the appointment of a new NRA head, and more delays in reconstruction. Pushpa Kamal Dahal should rather involve himself more in reconstruction efforts and keep pushing those under him to hurry things up. This is the least quake victims expect of their prime minister who came to office promising them quick relief.