Earthquake reconstruction: no more excusesSuccessive governments have used feeble excuses to delay reconstruction. But there is an opportunity now to finish some priority projects.
April 25 marked five years since a devastating series of earthquakes wreaked havoc in parts of Nepal. Nearly 10,000 people lost their lives to this disaster. Many more faced hardships—and continue to do so—because successive governments have failed in their attempts to complete reconstruction. While the stalled reconstruction efforts in heritage buildings are worrying enough—due to the loss in potential tourism growth—even structures pertaining to governance, health and education have been left incomplete. What’s worse, the three tranches of aid promised to families who lost their home, so that they may rebuild their lives, have not come through in their entirety.
Successive governments since 2015, two of them led by Prime Minister KP Oli, have brought up excuses to answer for the abysmal state of progress. The excuses began with an Indian economic blockade, then became about the lack of political stability and a painful transition period. Much more recently, having missed another April 25 deadline, the concerned have brought up the current Covid-19 crisis as the reason for the delays. However, Nepal’s measures against the novel coronavirus, including a debilitating but necessary lockdown, have not even been in place for two months, while most of the reconstruction efforts are not anywhere within 60 days of being complete.
Now, as Nepal Reconstruction Authority announces a partial restart of the reconstruction efforts, it is important to note such announcements with heavy scepticism. By the authority’s own admission, current social distancing rules make it tough to employ enough workers to actually make the restart meaningful. The lack of plans for labour mobilisation—many domestic migrants have returned home due to the lack of effective communication and meaningful relief—means that it will take some time to reorganise labour and restart all economic activity, including in construction. If anything, the partial work may move things forward in a slow enough pace to bring some positive publicity for the concerned, without concrete impacts on employment and on the reconstruction timeline itself.
The problems in this sector are not new, and therefore should not be viewed from the lens of the current crisis alone. It was in May 2016 that the government, then also run by the current prime minister, decided on an Rs838 billion five-year plan that would see through the construction of all damaged private housing, academic institutions and health facilities within three years. All other rehabilitation and building works had to be completed in five years. It is estimated that 781,176 households, 7,553 educational institutions, 1,197 health facilities, 2,900 heritage sites had been damaged during the 2015 earthquakes. By the reconstruction authorities’ own estimates, only about 68.5 percent—which could well be inflated—of the work outlined in the 2016 plan has been completed. Nevermind the national monuments and tourist attractions, what’s alarming is that about 26 percent of schools and nearly 50 percent of health facilities are yet to be rebuilt—two years post-deadline.
This is not to say the government should now rush to push through the large projects in haste. Social distancing and managing the rate of infections are rightly a priority. But the current crisis should not shield any of the government’s failures; it had enough time to see the projects through had there been enough political will. As the federal government coordinates with local governments on the best way to restart the economy, there is a new opportunity in reconstruction work. The schools and healthcare facilities that need to be built may not face the same challenges of crowded work conditions like the larger projects. Moreover, as the anti-transmission measures make the movement of labour across districts difficult, it may be suitable to employ the displaced and unemployed more locally, to at least finish the long-overdue houses, schools and health posts.