That elusive subsidy

The government has decided to mobilise the CBS to reassess the damages before distributing Rs 200,000 to earthquake-affected families in grants. But this move comes very late in the reconstruction process and will upset the families, who are eager to move out of temporary shelters

On October 2, the shelter cluster, which is responsible for coordinating the relief and recovery work related to post earthquake housing plans, published a document that answered some of the questions pertinent to reconstruction. Among other things, the document tried to answer questions related to the government subsidy of Rs 200,000—an amount the government aims to provide to every household whose house was completely damaged in the earthquake.

But before the households can get the money, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) will assess the damages first. The data agency will start the assessment after Tihar and create a list of households eligible for the grant. The government will then base the disbursement of grant money on this list.

Involving the CBS in collecting data for long-term reconstruction is a good plan. It’s also the first time the agency is being used to collect information in a post-disaster scenario. Since the agency has a reputation of being thorough, the statistics it collects should be credible and therefore of help in implementing the government’s plan. But the decision to mobilise the CBS comes a little too late (the final decision was made about two weeks ago, according to the Deputy Director General of CBS) and seems to be testing the patience of the earthquake-affected, who want to move out of temporary shelters as soon as possible.

Until now, word was that the ‘earthquake victim’ ID cards, which were distributed soon after the earthquakes, would be used to determine the households’ eligibility for subsidies and loans. Affected families in a Village Development Committee were identified by a team led by the VDC secretary and the ID cards denote clearly whether a house was completely or partially damaged by the earthquake.

On one level, the reassessment (although it’s only called ‘assessment’ in the document) seems warranted. It has been reported very frequently that not all houses marked as completely damaged are such. VDC secretaries have been unofficially charged with bumping up the number of completely destroyed houses, whether under pressure from representatives of political parties or owing to sheer negligence. In other cases, such as in Makwanpur, people are angry that the houses rendered unliveable by the quakes are marked as only ‘partially damaged’. And there are a lot of grievances that in the lack of a proper definition of a household, some brothers who lived in the same house but did not share the kitchen are identified as two households while in other cases, they are not. “Afno manchhelai matra diyo” (“They only gave the ‘completely destroyed’ ID cards to their own”) is a well-known line.

Neither the CBS nor the document issued by the shelter cluster, however, says that the reassessment is to check malfeasance or falsification of documents. Besides, the mechanism to do so is already in place. Before a household head received their ID card, they were made to sign on the card, with full knowledge that providing wrongful information was punishable under existing laws. If a complaint is filed against a family, the District Disaster Relief Committee, together with the police, will investigate and confiscate the ID card once the accused is found guilty. Under existing laws, the offender will be fined Rs 1,000 or imprisoned for 15 days or both. Of course, implementing the law has always been easier said than done.

The Deputy Director General of the CBS, Rudra Suwal, said that the objective of the assessment would be to collect additional information on the earthquake affected—information such as on the victims’ socio-economic status and bank account details. To check corruption, the government and donors plan to deposit Rs 200,000 in three tranches in the bank accounts of the affected families. They also plan to support extremely vulnerable households—such as those headed by women or children—by providing an additional Rs 200,000 in loans at a 2 percent interest rate without collateral.

Suwal said that the enumeration would take at least six months, which means the disbursement of subsidies will not start until the first quarter of 2016—a full year after the earthquake. To make matters worse, the government at the moment has money enough for only 120,000 households; more than 600,000 houses were completely destroyed in the quake.

Genuine victims, who lost their houses to the quake and who have nowhere else to go, will be furious at this pace of reconstruction. In the hopes that the reconstruction will start after the monsoon, they somehow survived the rains, but now winter is coming. While the government and the organisations in the shelter cluster are planning to distribute blankets, jackets, stoves and other materials as part of their winterisation kits, these hand-outs are no substitutes to the warmth of a house. And by the time the government starts depositing the first tranches of subsidies, another monsoon will already be looming.

Questions every earthquake-affected family will now ask is why the enumeration once again. The team the CBS is planning to send—comprising a technical person, a local person, a VDC official, and maybe representatives of political parties for verification of facts—does not sound vastly different from the one led by the VDC secretary. It will only have more questions.  Shouldn’t then the VDC secretary-led team have been ordered to do a thorough job right after the earthquakes? What was the point of distributing ID cards in the beginning if they were going to be worthless later?

Sure, the earthquake was an unexpected large-scale disaster, but this is not the first time a disaster has struck the country. Every year landslides and floods have devastated the hills and the plains. Has the government learnt nothing about preparing for post-disaster situations? Will it learn from this earthquake? Both the government and partner organisations have to answer.

Published on 10 October 2015, The Kathmandu Post