A guest article by
Suvi Sillanpää

An earthquake struck Nepal in April and May of 2015, resulting in the deaths of more than 9,000 people and leaving over 750,000 houses destroyed or damaged (according to UN figures). The destruction is estimated to amount to seven billion US dollars. Two years after the earthquake, the reconstruction is yet to start full scale.

In this blog, I look at how the political processes in Nepal shape the reconstruction process in rural villages and how uncertainty in politics trickles down to the foundational structures of the society: the homes.

Last year, one year after the earthquake, I visited several villages and spoke with representatives of numerous NGOs working there in order to map out the progress of the reconstruction. In February of this year, I visited a settlement of Dalits (previously referred to as Untouchables) in Nuwakot district with the Nepali NGO South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED) to get a better understanding of the current situation.

The Nepal Government has been criticized heavily for the lagging reconstruction process. Soon after the earthquake, a conference was held at which donors agreed to give aid worth 4.1 billion US dollars (3.75 billion euros). However, the proclamation of a new constitution in Nepal sparked months of protests and a border blockade preventing the import of fuel and gas from India. As a result, the process of reconstruction slowed down in the winter of 2015–2016 as transportation came to a halt.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) was established in December 2015 after delays caused by the inability of politicians to agree over its leadership. The NRA took over the responsibility of assessing the damages caused by the earthquake to private houses and distributing grants to the eligible households. The political debate surrounding the NRA has continued between and among the governments that have changed twice since the earthquake. According to the NRA, currently 98 percent of the beneficiaries in the 14 most-affected districts have received the first instalment of the grant, 50,000 rupees (440 euros).

The Dalit basti (basti means settlement) is comprised of forty households located on a hillside in a village inhabited by several castes. The journey up the hill from the main street plain market area of the village on the plain is made longer by the muddy road which, with its huge potholes, resembles a riverbed.

A view from Dalit basti.

All the houses in the settlement, built of stone and mud, are uninhabitable and people are living in cattle sheds or temporary shelters made of wood and sheets of metal. Some houses were reduced to rubble in the earthquake and many of them are severely cracked but still standing. Twenty three out of the forty households in the Dalit basti have received the first instalment of 50,000 rupees, and nine households whose documents lack the necessary information are still waiting for a decision.

Eight households in the Dalit basti were not included on the list of households eligible for the grant although their houses were damaged like other houses in the village. The government officials have not provided an explanation for why these households were excluded. The house owners have been told that the engineers have filled and submitted their documents, but their processing after that is unclear. They are planning to file a complaint.

The majority of men from the Dalit basti have migrated to Kathmandu or abroad for work, so women are responsible of taking care of the temporary shelters that have become their homes. “During the day it’s alright, but when it starts getting dark I am worried that someone may try to harm us or thieves may come”, says a woman called Bishnumaya whose two adult sons live in Kathmandu. Some robberies have occurred in the market area of the village after the earthquake. In the summer time, snakes come inside the shelters, causing concern, since one young boy from the community has already died of snake bite.

Despite the difficulties of living in the temporary shelters and although more than half of the households in the Dalit basti have received the first instalments of the grant, the reconstruction has not yet started because several aspects of the use of the grant remain unclear to the recipients. The government has published a list of 17 earthquake-resistant model houses and guidelines for building, which people should follow in order to receive the entire grant of 300,000 rupees (2,700 Euros). The second instalment is paid after the first phase of the construction has been completed as per the regulations. 

Damaged houses and temporary shelters in Dalit basti.

The residents of the Dalit basti have heard about the models from the government engineers who conducted the survey of the damages and from the engineers of an NGO, but the designs that have been distributed the VDCs (village development committees) in poster form were not found in the VDC office when the Dalits visited it. Three people in the village out of 2,000 households have been given training related to the government models, but so far the Dalits have not heard from them. They are worried that if they fail to build according to the models, they may not be eligible for the second instalment of the grant. The political uncertainty and the swift changes of government also make them wonder if they can rely on receiving the full grant as promised.

“We don’t have a plan”, says a young man named Bharat when asked about the options the community has for rebuilding. The lack of up-to date official information has left space for misinformation and circulating rumours. There is a strong impression among the residents of the Dalit basti that the use of modern materials is required by the government. The general preference is also for modern pillar houses made of cement as they are considered strong unlike traditional houses, but problem is that people cannot afford the expensive materials and the associated transportation costs. “The grant is not sufficient [for building a house], Bharat explains. “And we [Dalits] don’t have any savings that we can use in addition.” The residents of the basti earn meagre wages by working on a day-to-day basis as agricultural workers and construction workers.

According to SADED’s engineer Ram Sharan Sapkota it is possible to construct a house according to the regulations by reusing the old material and adopting local materials. This way the expenses remain within the limits of the grant and people can use the local skills. Compressed bricks of soil and small amount of water and cement that the community itself can manufacture are an affordable option. The spatial plans of the designs provided by the Government can also be modified according to the needs of the people.

Migration from the Dalit basti has not increased after the earthquake, but it has remained an important source of livelihood. According to Uddhab Pyakurel, a researcher and a member of SADED, migration to Arab countries, Malaysia and other foreign countries may increase if affordable and safe options for reconstruction are not provided. As he has pointed out to me, reconstruction is closely connected to what kind of society the Nepalis want to build.

The lack of information is not the only problem faced by Dalits. The deplorable condition of the road to the basti makes it difficult to transport materials. Money has been allotted to its improvement, but no one knows when the work will begin. “Otherwise we could start building, because we can reuse the material from our old house,” Bishnumaya says. 

Cracks in the wall.

Traditionally, the community has built houses through the exchange of labour between families. Only men can take part in building each other’s houses, so for Bishnumaya whose sons live in Kathmandu, this reciprocal help is not an option and her family has to find paid labour for the construction. Migration has disrupted old support networks. Before, one needed social relationships to build homes, now one needs money. An elderly man, Gopal, is a mason by profession and he and his brothers have agreed to help each other to build houses. As a mason and having brothers, he is in a good position to start the work, but the uncertainty over the government grant has discouraged him.

Migration from the Dalit basti has not increased after the earthquake, but it has remained an important source of livelihood. According to a researcher and a member of SADED migration may increase if affordable and safe options for reconstruction are not provided. As he pointed out to me, reconstruction is closely connected to what kind of society the Nepalis want to build.

Since the earthquake, people in Nepal have been constantly waiting for something: official decisions, the survey, the instalments, the information. The reconstruction of the Nepali homes is entangled in the workings of the Nepali politics and its volatile processes as the adoption of the new constitution has not helped unify the political parties. Marginalized groups such as Dalits suffer the most from poor governance and administration as they have to pull together their limited resources and to wait the longest to receive correct information.

The first instalments of the grants have been distributed, but uncertainty continues. The best time for building will be soon over as the monsoon rains arrive. It remains to be seen if people will have to face yet another monsoon and winter in temporary shelters.

Suvi Sillanpää holds a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Helsinki. She is associated with several Finnish international development organisations. After the April 2015 earthquake, she lived in Nepal for a year and followed the reconstruction process in liaison with local NGOs.

Photos © Suvi Sillanpää.