Govt will relocate five settlements as pilot projects, says Pokharel

Two years down the line of the devastating Gorkha Earthquake in 2015, the reconstruction process has caught momentum as families in the quake-hit areas have begun constructing their homes. The number of families applying for the second tranche of the housing grant is going up, and there has been significant progress in the reconstruction of schools, health institutions and heritages. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) hopesthat about 150,000 houses will be completed within this monsoon.In this context, Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal caught up with Chief Executive Officer of the NRA Dr. Govinda Raj Pokharel to discuss the reconstruction progress, creating awareness, relocation of families at risk, developing human resources and other issues. Excerpts: govinda raj


What is the recent progress in reconstruction?

About 95 per cent of the quake affected families that signed a grant agreement with the government have received the first installment in 31 districts. More than 55,300 households are eligible to receive the second tranche of the grant while more than 68,256 families have applied for the second installment of Rs. 150,000. There has been significant progress in the reconstruction of monuments, schools and health institutions. About 50 per cent of the school buildings are in various phases of construction. This is significant progress despite the manpower crunch faced in construction. I think this is satisfactory although we are slow by a year in post-quake reconstruction as compared to other countries that have faced similar crises.

There are two reasons behind the delay: complex and sluggish process of reconstruction, lack of human resource and the local elections that engaged government officials for more than two months. But we are hopeful that within this monsoon, construction of about 150,000 houses will be concluded. And an additional 250,000 houses will be built by the end of the next fiscal year, 2017/18.


What about school and heritage reconstruction?

Regarding the schools and government buildings, it might take more than two years to complete all the reconstruction work. But more time is needed for heritage construction. A lot of time is consumed in designing, preserving the original identity and cultural values of our heritage. We are holding a series of meetings with the local stakeholders to ease and expedite the process of reconstruction. Monuments are being reconstructed by the community, metropolitan city and the Department of Archaeology. The local people are attached with the heritage and want to rebuild it as per the original design and look. Therefore, we have implemented public-private-partnerships in heritage construction. Many government and private companies and non-government organizations have shown an interest in heritage reconstruction.


Even after two years of the Gorkha Earthquake, people have not built their homes. What is your observation?

The first and most pertaining reason is the lack of skilled manpower. Secondly, the first installment of Rs. 50,000 is insufficient for poor families to construct the DPC of a house. Therefore, we had appealed to the NGOs and International NGOs to support such families with Rs. 50,000 in cash and technical assistance. Another reason is the insufficient money. The government’s grant of Rs. 300,000 is insufficient to construct a house at any locations of the country, therefore the quake-affected families have been waiting for additional money needed to build their homes. Many families have young members working in foreign countries. The families were given corrugated iron sheets and other materials by various organisations, including the government. Using these sheets and recovered construction materials from the collapsed houses, they have built semi-permanent homes and are now waiting for matching money sufficient enough to build a concrete home. What I have also observed is that many families have another house in less affected areas.


The NRA couldn’t spend more than 50 per cent of the total allocated budget for reconstruction. Who is to blame for that?

I think we all are to blame for that including those who allocated the budget. We returned about Rs. 20 billion to the Finance Ministry. Similarly, we didn’t have a flexible budget.And we couldn’t distribute the second installment as per our initial estimate.


Don’t you think that the government has failed in terms of creating awareness among the people as many of them think that their house would be built by the government?

This was largely due to media reporting. Everyday the media is reporting that the government has failed in reconstructing private houses. I found during my field trips in Dolakha and other districts that people had not commenced building their homes, hoping that one day the government would come and build one for them. Some even complained that the government built houses for the people in other districts but not in Dolakha. We have been creating awareness through radio jingles in various local languages that housesare to be built by the families themselves.


You have been making frequent visits to the rural and remote quake-affected areas. What are the concerns of the quake-affected people in the rural areas?

The rural people’s expectations are high, but they lack the money. But due to continuous interventions, they have understood the principle of ‘build back better’ and are now ready to apply quake-resistant building standards.


The government said that the reconstruction fund would be activated in the next fiscal year. But now there is news that the fund will not be activated at all. And the Ministry of Finance recently said that there was a reconstruction fund amounting to Rs. 28 billion.

Nobody wants to create the reconstruction fund. Nobody wants to curtail their own rights and think out of the box in terms of reconstruction.This applies to us, too. We all want to follow the traditional way to address any issue. But the budget for next fiscal year has given more flexibility to the reconstruction body, which allows us to mobilise the funds more easily than in the past.

However, creating the Fund would have been a wonderful idea. Once the fund is activated, all the money dedicated to the reconstruction would come to it, and the NRA need not request the Finance Ministry to allocate budget and wait for its disbursement. All the money pledged by the international community at the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction 2015 would also be deposited in the fund after signing an agreement with the concerned parties.


Is there any progress regarding the relocation of the families in the risk areas?

Most of the resettlement will be implemented by the Ministry of Urban Development. We have a plan to relocate and develop five settlements as a pilot project. Within a couple of months, we will conduct a survey and develop the design of the settlements and houses and engineering, and the houses will be built after Dashain, in September. We will develop the village/town development plan, acquire the land and ask the people to build their houses in the planned locations. There will be coordination with other government agencies, private sector and NGOs.


You have been saying that there was lack of effective coordination among the concerned agencies. What kind of policy or structural changes are needed to make the partnership between the stakeholder agencies effective?

There is no problem in coordination, instead the challenges are being created by the lengthy bureaucratic system. But we are coordinating with the local bodies in the villages. With the successful implementation of the local elections, we have working hands at the local level, too.


Has the NRA received any support from I/NGO and the private sector in developing skilled manpower for the reconstruction?

Although some of the organisations have conducted training to create semi-skilled manpower, there has not been significant contribution from the I/NGO and private sector. Lately, we want to use the youth, who are heading for foreign countries for employment, in the reconstruction for a couple of months. Discussions are underway with the manpower companies.


Do you have any specific plan for the ultra-poor families?

The NRA alone can’t do much in terms of helping the poorest families as our hands are tied by rules and regulations. Therefore, we want to mobilise the donor agencies, non-government agencies and local bodies to provide additional support to them so that they can build their homes.

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