Decisions Could Have Been Better: Modnath Dhakal

With the culmination of the post-disaster honeymoon period, it seems that the country is on the path of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake about two months ago. The government has done a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) and a donor conference has just been organised in the capital.

Meanwhile, the government is in the final phase of procuring concrete cutters and other heavy equipment needed to demolish high-rise houses. Similarly, Rs. 15,000 has been distributed to each of the families rendered homeless by the quake while Rs. 185,000 will be provided to those families as a grant to rebuild their homes while a concessional home loan, at only 2 per cent interest with a grace period of one year, will be offered to the quake-affected families.

With the catastrophic earthquake, the country, which was trying to wriggle out of the trauma caused by the decade-long civil war, has been pushed into myriad problems. Businesses have been destroyed, economic growth pushed down, basic facilities like schools, health posts and water supply damaged, while thousands of families have lost members and relatives. Worse still, the quake has weakened the hills that could cause serious landslides during the ongoing monsoon. But, the government seems not to be taking them into account.

Wrong decision

The aftermath of the quake has been marked by juvenile decisions of the government. The political leadership might have come under tremendous fire then had there not been prompt and pro-active initiatives by the security agencies, civil society, international community and private sector.

In the past seven weeks, the government has taken many wrong decisions, like putting a ban on construction of new buildings, giving the Kathmandu Valley ‘crisis-hit’ status, allowing international Non-Governmental Organisations to move about freely and the like. 

Declaring the Kathmandu Valley a ‘crisis-hit’ zone for a year has sent a negative message to the world. Prospective inbound tourists will be discouraged from visiting an area which has been declared ‘crisis-hit’ by the government itself. The consequences of this crisis tag on civil rights are another topic for discussion.

The government should have worked to bring things back to normal as early as possible. While the government was mulling over retaining the crisis-hit status for the three districts of the valley, Minister for Tourism Kripasur Sherpa was busy attending the programmes in Bhaktapur and Kathmandu Durbar Squares to send the message to the world that Nepal was safe to visit. Labeling the three districts as ‘crisis-hit’ was itself a warning to scare away the prospective visitors. Governments and travel companies in the developed world would not advise their people to visit the area that is fraught with risks for the tourists. Who wants a perilous journey anyway?

The blanket moratorium on construction of buildings has proved to be a big setback for the construction industry and related business. People have begun repairing their cracked walls and erecting the boundary walls, but new homes have not come up. The only construction business flourishing these days is that of corrugated zinc sheets used for roofing temporary sheds. This myopic decision of the government has snatched the employment of thousands of construction workers. It has an obvious effect on the livelihood of the poor people.

The government should have allowed ‘properly-engineered’ houses up to two storeys to come up. Although the government has said it will bring out a new housing code by mid-July, there has been little progress in developing the code as the government has not called a single meeting of the stakeholders and experts till now.

The government has been distributing the relief money to the quake-affected people in cash. What has barred the government from using the banking channel? Had the relief money been distributed via the banks and financial institutions, thousands of bank accounts could have been created, which might have played a crucial role in enhancing their access to the banks and financial institutions (BFIs). Moreover, this would have lessened the chances of misappropriation of the money meant for the victims. It’s still not yet late, and the government should dole out the remaining Rs. 185,000 via the BFIs. It must not disregard the country’s vibrant banking sector.

The government could not maintain up-to-date database of the relief materials being distributed by the international agencies and non-governmental organisations. While officials at the Home Ministry were busy managing the personnel, things and information amidst the growing demands from the affected people and civil society, other line ministries did not initiate any relief and recovery programmes in their respective sectors. In that confusion, people and goods of all sort entered the country.

Although this is not an appropriate time to show apprehension towards the generosity of countries and organisations, every activity of theirs should have been recorded. At least the government must know who is doing what and where. The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare is responsible for looking after the NGOs and INGOs in the country. But the irony is that the ministry has the least information about their activities.

The government might have drawn flak had it tried to bar the INGOs from distributing the relief materials to the people during the period of crisis. INGOs along with Nepalese organisations, political parties and individuals played an important role in distributing relief materials as it was not possible for the government to reach out to every nook and corner of the quake-hit districts. But the government did not make any effort to record everything that entered the country. In many instances, it did not know if the materials arrived here legally. The INGOs claimed spending billions of rupees in relief operations, but the government has no idea what was distributed and where and by which organisation.

Recovery plans

The government has also failed to devise sector-wise recovery plans as it never directed the respective ministries to do so. However, government agencies like the Department of Archaeology and private sector organisations like the Pacific Asia Travel Association Nepal Chapter are busy in developing recovery programmes with the help of international experts. Other sectors should follow suit.

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