A Year On, Nepal Earthquake Victims Are Still Struggling

There is a near unanimous feeling in the country that the Oli government has failed on the domestic front, particularly in its ability to rehabilitate those hit by last year’s disastrous earthquake.

A man runs past damaged houses as aftershocks of an earthquake are felt a day after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal April 26, 2015. Rescuers dug with their bare hands and bodies piled up in Nepal on Sunday after the earthquake devastated the heavily crowded Kathmandu valley, killing at least 1,900, and triggered a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar.

A man runs past damaged houses as aftershocks of an earthquake are felt a day after the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal on April 26, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar.

For once, the chatty prime minister of Nepal was on the mark. During his new year message to the nation on April 12, KP Sharma Oli evoked the old hare-and-tortoise metaphor to highlight the pace of post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal. The country needed to work with the hare’s speed, said the hard-headed communist prime minister in a rare mea culpa, but is instead moving ahead like the tortoise. Most Nepalis listening to him that day would have nodded their heads in agreement.

There is a widespread perception in Nepal that in the lead up to the first anniversary of the first big (7.9-magnitude) earthquake on April 25, 2015, little has been done to rehabilitate around 770,000 families who lost their homes. The much-touted National Reconstruction Authority, the apex body to oversee all reconstruction works, could not be formed for seven months after the tragedy, largely owing to differences among major political parties on who should head it. No one, it seemed, wanted to miss out on a bonanza estimated at US $8-billion.

The international community had pledged around US $4 billion to help with reconstruction during the international donor meet held in Kathmandu last June. India alone had promised US $1 billion, $500 million more than China, its geo-strategic rival in Nepal. The Nepal government promised to match the funding from abroad. But even as political parties have fought to take control of this juicy pot, most of these pledges from the international community have not materialised. This is because a year after the earthquakes, Nepal is yet to come up with a credible reconstruction plan. Nor has it been able to convince the international community that this money will be spent wisely.

The whipping boy

But even as the Oli government’s failure on reconstruction was there for everyone to see, people didn’t complain. This was because Oli — who had replaced the more docile Sushil Koirala as prime minister following the promulgation of new constitution on September 20, 2015 — was seen as someone who had fearlessly stood up to a ‘bullying’ India during the four-and-a-half-month border blockade that ended in early February. This earned him a lot of political capital among his core constituencies up in the hill and mountain areas of Nepal. It was this political capital that he spent with seeming abandon to paper over the deficiencies of his government. So long as the blockade was in place, he could always blame India for the tortoise-like pace of reconstruction.

As Oli buttressed his nationalist credentials in the face of such overt Indian meddling, he was increasingly compared, both by his admirers and critics alike, to King Mahendra. The erstwhile autocratic monarch of Nepal who reigned back in 1960s is credited with successfully leveraging China to balance Indian influence in Nepal. The India-baiting Mahendra is, to this day, a darling of Nepali nationalists and the bête noir of traditionally marginalised groups like the Madheshis and Janajatis. Similarly, Oli, during the blockade, won the adulation of hill-origin folks while earning the hatred of the Tarai-based parties.

But even as Oli’s brand of anti-India nationalism has found many takers in the aftermath of the blockade, it can take him, and the country, only so far. As the pain of the blockade fades, people are starting to ask hard questions: Why are essential fuels still in short supply, more than two months after the lifting of the blockade? Why does the black market sale of fuel continue to flourish? And why have earthquake victims been left high and dry?

For the longest time, the political parties fought over the control of the reconstruction authority. When it was formed, the authority decided to inexplicably ditch the initial surveys of destroyed homes and to start everything anew, which only added to the delay. Hence, a year into the earthquakes, even the first phase of reconstruction — the detailed survey of all destroyed homes— is as yet incomplete.

Castles in the sky

Immediately after the earthquakes, the government had announced 200,000 rupees in grants and up to 2.5 million rupees in subsidised loan to each family rendered homeless. Logistical hurdles have meant that less than 1% of all earthquake victims have benefitted from these schemes. Frustrated, many have started rebuilding on their own with what little they have.

In his new year message, Oli again promised to expedite reconstruction works. He said the first tranche of the 200,000 rupees promised to earthquake victims would be handed out without any more delays. He also publicly scolded senior government officials for their tardiness in reconstruction work.

The prime minister may have promised them the moon, but quake victims won’t be persuaded unless there is tangible progress. They have already spent one winter out in the bitter cold. Some have died. In the thousands of temporary camps scattered over the 11 districts that were hit the hardest by last year’s earthquakes, patience is running thin.

The road ahead won’t be easy for Oli. The Tarai-based parties have recently declared a new round of protests, even though they now say they won’t resort to blocking entry points with India. The new protests, they say, will instead be centered on Singha Durbar, the seat of power in Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, Sher Bahadur Deuba, a former prime minister and the newly-elected president of Nepali Congress, the biggest party in the Nepali parliament, is currently in New Delhi. Rumour mills in Kathmandu are churning. Deuba is apparently seeking India’s backing for his bid to become the Nepali prime minister for the fourth time.

If Congress is determined to reclaim government leadership, it could be hard for Oli and his CPN-UML party to keep their governing coalition intact, especially if Deuba wins the backing of Tarai-based parties. New Delhi will also be a lot more comfortable with a Deuba government under the Nepali Congress (a party that has been traditionally close to India) than the current Oli government (which is seen as tilting towards China).

But whatever comes of Deuba’s New Delhi visit, it won’t be easy for him or anyone else to unseat Oli if he has the support of common Nepalis. But even though many people here in Kathmandu give him the highest marks for his recent efforts at diversifying Nepal’s trade and transit routes — and rightly so  — there is a near unanimous feeling that on the domestic front his government has been a failure so far.

Prime Minister Oli does not have much time to change this perception. People must feel the presence of his government; earthquake victims in particular need urgent help. Nationalism does not come easy to the folks struggling just to stay alive.

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets at @biswasktm.