On April 25, Nepal marked the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake that rendered nearly 3.5 million people homeless, destroyed countless public and government buildings, and claimed around 9,000 lives. Five years on, 87 percent of private houses have been rebuilt, according to public records. Yet thousands are still forced to take shelter in tents and cracked buildings.
Soon after the earthquake, the government decided to give Rs 300,000 in grant to each affected household, on an installment basis, to build new houses. But the cash proved insufficient for the poor and vulnerable groups to build houses by sticking to the construction standards set by the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA). In contrast, the comparably rich households took the government grant and built their houses, either by adding their own money or by taking out loans.
Initially, neither the government nor donor agencies paid much attention to vulnerable groups. There are basically two categories of households that have been unable to rebuild. The first group is comprised of single women, elderly, disabled, the landless people who do not have citizenship certificates, and the extremely poor, all of whom have been categorized as vulnerable. They are yet to start rebuilding despite accepting Rs 50,000 in the first installment of the government grant.
In the second group are those who built the house foundation with the first installment but were then unable to complete the house. For this group of people, the NRA has a policy of providing Rs 300,000 in loan with five percent interest. But the commercial banks are hesitant, and an expected progress has not materialized. NRA officials say banks are not cooperating enough.
Sonam Funjo Sherpa, 65, from Chhekampar of Gorkha district shares a painful story. Widowed after the death of his wife a decade ago, he has been alone and unable to rebuild. “He cannot walk, but it takes five days to reach to district headquarters to apply for the grant,” says Ward Chair Pasang Funjo Lama. “He has a torn citizenship certificate without a photo, and his name is blurred. So he needs a new citizenship certificate too.” Sherpa is living in a house damaged by the earthquake.
Likewise, Ram Bahadur Shrestha, a permanent resident of Indrawati Rural Municipality in Sindhupalchowk district, says the Rs 50,000 he got in first installment was spent flattening his steep land so that he could build on it. “I do not have money to build the damp-proof course, the house foundation, which is essential to be eligible for the second grant installment,” Shrestha says, adding that he is not in a position to take out a loan. Nor does he have all the required documents. His four-member family is living in a makeshift house.
Initially, there were an estimated 18,000 vulnerable people. Of them, according to the NRA, 3,000 have built their houses with the assistance of donor agencies, local governments, and other philanthropic organizations. “Currently, around 15,000 people have not started building their houses. We have instructed local governments to collect data of such groups. The lockdown has disrupted the task of data-collection,” says Manohar Ghimire, joint spokesperson and information officer at the NRA.
To resolve their problem, the NRA plans to provide them with an additional Rs 50,000 in grant but the cabinet is yet to endorse it. Similarly, the NRA will request local governments and interested donor agencies to assist vulnerable groups. “We are deploying carpenters and other technical manpower to help this group build their houses,” says Ghimire.
For the second category of people, the NRA has been urging the commercial banks to simplify loan procedure. Soon after the earthquake, the government brought out a scheme of providing low-interest bank loans but the scheme has been poorly implemented. Commercial banks were reluctant to give loans to poor people, and the process was made extremely difficult for those who could not show a regular source of income.
The NRA has also been continuously talking with commercial banks about concessional loans for vulnerable people. In 2017, the cabinet had endorsed the Working Procedure for Subsidised Credit, which allows the people who were unable to build houses after taking the first installment to take out further loans. But hundreds of earthquake-affected families cannot produce the required documents.
The vulnerable people in earthquake-affected districts are still living in temporary or damaged houses, and even a small earthquake can destroy their abodes. There are also poor people who got the first requirement but spent the money to sustain their livelihood. Bishnu Maya Pariyar of Ajirkot, Gorkha district says, “The 50,000 rupees we got in the first installment were spent on daily essentials. Now, we don’t know how to go about rebuilding our homes,” Pariyar says.
Single women face additional difficulties in earthquake-affected districts. Sarita Karki, 32, a resident of Kamalamai Municipality-5 of Sindhuli district, has lost all hopes. Soon after the earthquake, her husband, who was working in Malaysia, died. “I have since been struggling to feed my son and daughter. I hear the government helps single women purchase land and build a house. But I don’t know how to go about it,” she says.
Bishnu Maya Magar, 62, of the same village, was abandoned by her husband 10 years ago. Her only income is government allowance for single women, and there is no way she can build a house on her own.
Five years since the earthquake, thousands of poor and vulnerable families are still struggling to put a roof over their heads. With the monsoon approaching, they could not get help soon enough.
With inputs from our district correspondents Shiva Ram Upreti (Gorkha), Yubaraj Puri (Sindhupalchowk), and Rajan Gaunle (Sindhuli)