Throw a blanket over

It seems the government is concerned less about helping households survive and more about covering up its own inefficacy


In the last week of November, the government made a statement that it would distribute Rs 10,000 to every household whose house was completely destroyed by the earthquake. This amount is to help the earthquake-affected families purchase warm clothes for winter. The government plans to finish disbursing the amount by mid-December.

It sounds like a very generous and timely move. Winter is here and the families displaced by the earthquake have not started rebuilding their homes. The government is still tinkering with the procedures for disbursing the grant of Rs 2,00,000 for reconstruction. And while the directive to issue home loans at a subsidised interest rate has been released for months now, most banks and financial institutions have not begun accepting applications because every other policy related to the reconstruction is murky. For instance, until the procedures for disbursing the grant was (semi) finalised in early October, no one knew that the loans and grants would be mutually exclusive. In such a state of confusion, it was a given then that the affected families would have to find warmth in relief materials.

Except that providing Rs 10,000 is symptomatic of the ad-hoc manner in which the government has been handling reconstruction, solving a problem as it comes, instead of being able to foresee it and manage beforehand.

The government had no plans to disburse money for winterisationuntil the Madhes protests fired up and the ‘unofficial blockade’ made lives tougher for the earthquake affected. Instead, humanitarian agencies under the shelter cluster were gearing up to provide winterisation kits (or the money equivalent of the cost of a kit, which would be over Rs12,000) to vulnerable households living above 1500 metres. According to the guidelines issued by the shelter cluster, a general kit would have warm clothes, bedding items and sealing-off materials such as tarpaulin or foam sheets.When the plan was first made public in early September, it was to dispense these kits to at least 80,000 households in 14 most affected districts. Now the number has been revised to around 2,00,000.

From the beginning, there was a problem with this plan,which the government should have noticed. Partner organisations are under no obligation to distribute the kits. They can follow the guidelines for a more effective outcome but the distribution depends entirely on their decision and internal resources.This means not every household which need support will get the kit or the cash equivalent. Already there are disgruntled voices that the organisations are handing out money only to those communities where they worked in before the earthquake, regardless of the altitude.

And now, even those who are willing to abide by the guidelines are facing difficulties procuring the items and distributing them, with some organisations cancelling the programme altogether. One might give the government the benefit of the doubt and say that it did not see the blockade coming. But by the time the first draft of the winterisation guidelines were released, the protests in the Tarai had already been flaring for about a month. And with the major political parties reluctant to give in to the demands of the Madhesis, it was clear the protests would only intensify after the promulgation of the constitution on September 20.

The government should not have waited until November 24 to actively step in and help affected families survive the winter. It knew it could not help households build houses before winter. So far, it only has funds enough for 120,000 households and the National Reconstruction Authority is nowhere near being formed to approach more donors. Besides, if the history of the disbursement of Rs 15,000 in immediate relief is anything to go by, the government is likely to miss the mid-December deadline, which is less than two weeks away. By the time the government reaches every household, spring might be around the corner.

Essentially, it seems that the government found a convenient excuse, first in drafting the constitution and now in the Madhes Andolan and the resulting blockade to overlook the daunting task of reconstruction. More than seven months have passed since the earthquake struck and the government is behaving as if it has just woken up from a deep slumber. Only now has it released the designs for rural houses. (The designs are yet to be circulated to the local bodies). Only now has it announced that it will provide the first instalment of Rs 2,00,000, but exactly how much and when are still unknown. And the talk of mobilising the Central Bureau of Statistics to verify the number of households affected has dissipated into thin air. As one affected person said, it looks like the government is throwing money at the victims like biscuits to avoid their rising up in disgust. Now, wouldn’t that be interesting? The hills and the plains resisting the government at the same time.

Published: 05-12-2015, The Kathmandu Post