How politics delayed Nepal reconstruction

By Jared Ferrie
Asia Editor

After delays due to political haggling, Nepal’s government has finally authorised a National Reconstruction Authority to begin rebuilding the earthquake-devastated country, although the actual reconstruction will not begin for a couple of months – almost an entire year after the 7.8 magnitude quake killed about 9,000 people.

The move comes too late to alleviate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people still living in shelters made from tarpaulins that provide little protection from the harsh winter. They lost everything in the earthquakes in April and May last year, and then became victims of politicians engaged in a power struggle for control over the NRA, which finally held its first board meeting this week.

The NRA can now begin to access $4 billion in funds pledged by international donors for reconstruction. Its first order of business was to task the Central Bureau of Statistics to carry out an assessment of how many homes were destroyed. The NRA’s undersecretary, Bhisma Bhusal, told IRIN that the assessment will take about seven weeks, after which reconstruction can begin.

Aid agencies welcomed the news.

“Better late than never,” said Vivek Rawal, a housing reconstruction advisor with the United Nations Development Programme.

Initial reports after the quake indicated that half a million houses were completely destroyed, but Rawal told IRIN that an assessment was necessary to verify the exact number of homes that would need rebuilding. Such an assessment should have been done as soon as possible to get accurate numbers and allow reconstruction to begin. One concern is that, during the long wait to get started, people may have unnecessarily pulled down damaged houses that could have been restored.

The NRA’s former CEO, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, said he had actually asked the Statistics Bureau to begin its survey right after he was appointed back in August. He lost the job in October after Nepal’s parliament chose a new prime minister – Khadga Prasad Oli of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party, which leads the coalition government – and then refused to ratify an ordinance to authorise the NRA.

“We started that, but once I left, the work was very slow,” said Pokhrel, who is seen as connected to the opposition Nepali Congress party.

Despite the political wrangling, the government could have ordered the Statistics Bureau to continue its work. It is not clear why that did not happen.

“We would like to know,” said Rawal, while stressing that the most important thing was the work at hand. “Now, energies are correctly focused on all these reconstruction policies,” he said.

Others are less forgiving of the government’s interminable delays.

Guna Raj Luitel, editor of the Kathmandu-based Nagarik newspaper, told IRIN that the government should start disbursing grants immediately, especially as the destruction of homes had already been confirmed in some areas.

“There are data already,” he said. “It's petty politics and a lame excuse not to initiate reconstruction now.”

Pokhrel warned there is a danger the NRA could use reconstruction funding for political purposes – for example, by directing money to certain people or areas to gain support. He said there was a risk that the UML could stack the reconstruction body with its supporters, although he said this should not delay the NRA’s work any longer.

“We need to stop the misuse of funds by the government, which has politicised this NRA,” he told IRIN. “On the other hand, we need to help people suffering as soon as possible. That is the dilemma Nepal is facing.”

Pokhrel said new guidelines allow the government to appoint staff members onto the reconstruction authority who might then exert influence in local communities.

Bhusal, the NRA’s undersecretary, confirmed that 115 of the authority's 208 personnel are to be supplied by the government. He said he knew nothing about the political background of the newly-appointed CEO, Sushil Gyawali, but several sources told IRIN he is a former UML student leader.

Regardless of political connections, Gyawali is widely seen as a good choice to take the helm at the NRA. He headed the Town Development Fund, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Physical Planning and Transport, which provides financing and expertise to build municipal projects such as water systems and health centres.

“He has lots of experience and he can work in a very good way with local people,” said Bhusal. “We are quite optimistic.”