Normal for whom?

Not having any idea about what it is doing might be perfectly normal for the government, but for those who lost everything to the earthquake, it is a nightmare

A few weeks ago, a humanitarian worker who had been working in the northern regions of Gorkha since the earthquake confided that things in the government were back to usual. The sense of urgency that was there in the immediate days after the disaster, he said, was now gone.

Immediately after the earthquake, the bureaucrats and the heads of local agencies would listen to the affected communities and aid workers, and would actively seek out information and participate in relief work. Now, he said, the red tape was back up and the government officials have slid back into their armchairs.

Reinstatement of normalcy was bound to happen, even if what the normal constitutes is not something we like. What is frustrating, however, is that the government seems to be ‘efficient’ only in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and not in averting one. To give the benefit of the doubt to district officials, it’s not solely their fault that things are once again slow and uncoordinated. The panic and the relief phases are over, but the preparations for the recovery phase (even at the central level) are not in place yet, not even when nearly 10 months have gone by since the quake.

The media headlines were wrong when they said that the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) received ‘full shape’ in January. The Authority had only appointed members in the directive, advisory and executive committees. It is yet to establish offices down to the local level as planned. Talking about establishing offices might be jumping a step too far; the plans for such offices are yet to be approved. To be fair, the Authority has been planning to move things along for a while, but then, former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala died. While a tragic incident, his death should have been irrelevant to the post-earthquake recovery work. But since the Prime Minister, former prime ministers and heads of important offices are all in the steering and advisory committees, they could not meet to take decisions. And now, Prime Minister Oli and his jumbo team are on a visit to India for six days. One wonders why we have six deputy prime ministers if one cannot be the substitute for the Prime Minister.

What this constant deferring does is make the lives of the earthquake-affected communities more miserable when all they want now is the reconstruction grant of Rs 200,000 and other peripheral support to rebuild houses. Unless the big committees meet soon, the communities’ worst fears will be realised—they will be spending another year under wet and then cold tents. It’s not an exaggeration. The Authority is yet to draw up the eligibility criteria for the reconstruction grant. It is yet to set up the mechanism to disburse the grant. It does not even know whether the grant should be disbursed in three or four instalments.

And, of course, money alone does not build houses. Some villages have to be resettled and the government only has a vague idea about their resettlement—that it has to happen as close to the original settlement as possible. Those who do not have to resettle are yet to take a look at the house designs, understand them and decide which of the models to use. The government had planned to distribute copies of the catalogue of rural house designs to every VDC and municipalities by mid-January. But it changed its mind, blaming the ‘blockade’ in the beginning and now saying nothing but ‘umm’.

Then, there is the need for trained masons. Only a week ago, the Authority asked organisations and individuals to submit the details of training programmes held and to be held. Questions about when it will begin assessing the plans, identifying the need and gaps, and coordinating accordingly only draw sighs. Monsoon is only four months away.

The most infuriating aspect is that the job of the government/Authority is to simply coordinate the reconstruction work, not get down on all four and do it themselves, and yet it fails. It sends an email asking us to participate in a stupid NRA logo drawing contest, but knows nothing about the timeline of the reconstruction. Not having any idea about what it is doing might be perfectly normal for the government, but for those who lost everything to the earthquake, it is a nightmare.

Published on 20 February 2016 The Kathmandu Post