Nepal’s security forces received high ratings for their post-quake workIn two weeks, it will be the second anniversary of the biggest national tragedy in living memory that Nepal suffered.
In two weeks, it will be the second anniversary of the biggest national tragedy in living memory that Nepal suffered. A majority of the 2015 earthquake survivors, however, are still living in temporary shelters. The report “Aid and Recovery in Post-Earthquake Nepal” that was recently released by The Asia Foundation (TAF) explores various issues facing the quake survivors. Shashwat Acharya spoke to Sudhindra Sharma, a sociologist and a contributor to the study on which the report is based, about the key findings of the report, the work of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the aid Nepal received following the disaster, and what the government and donors should do to provide support to the victims.
Could you share some of the key findings of the study?
The report was the third in a series. The first one was undertaken two months after the earthquakes, the second one about six months later, and the third one another six months later. Immediately after the quakes, the main focus was on rescue operations. So questions in the first round of the survey were geared towards the victims’ immediate needs. As the focus shifted from rescue to relief, questions in the second round of the survey were mainly about livelihood. In the third round, our questions focussed on the extent to which the victims had received the government aid of Rs300,000 and whether they had moved to permanent shelters. So this series is like a tracker on how the earthquake survivors are coping with the changed circumstances.
The report mentions that as many as 71 percent of the victims are still
living in temporary shelters. How has that trend been?
I must mention at the outset that I’m not an author of the report. The authorship lies with TAF. My firm Interdisciplinary Analysts provided inputs to TAF in formulating the questionnaire, designing the sample, administering the survey and cleaning the data. But the analysis and writing were done by TAF and its consultants. There has been a slight improvement in terms of the number of people moving to permanent shelters, but the pace has been very slow. Particularly in districts severely hit by the quakes, the proportion of victims still living in temporary shelters is very high.
Doesn’t that reflect negatively on the work of the NRA?
One has to look at the NRA in the context of the Nepali state. If there are various dysfunctions associated with the state, one cannot expect the NRA to be very efficient. It has been a victim of the changes in government. So despite the NRA’s sincere efforts, many things are lacking. There have been numerous delays—not due to the NRA’s ill intentions but due to the various logistics involved in carrying out its mandate. And the mandate of the head of the NRA also leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not a strong position; the prime minister and the Cabinet have a lot of prerogatives.
The 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, at least in their immediate aftermath, have been compared with the Haitian earthquake. How fair or useful is such a comparison?
The Nepali state was much stronger than the Haitian state. The conflict in Nepal formally ended in 2006, and between then and the earthquakes in 2015, one could see improvements in the nature of the Nepali state. The issue with the Maoist combatants had been resolved. And despite the mercurial nature of Nepali politics, certain institutions have remained intact. The Army, for instance, remains autonomous despite attempts at encroachment on its authority.
Following the earthquakes, a lot of rescue and relief operations were carried out by the security forces. Our surveys also reflect this fact. When asked to rate the post-quake work of various entities, some of those that received the highest ratings were the security agencies.
How justified are concerns about people from marginalised and vulnerable groups being disproportionately affected by the NRA’s inefficiency?
The issue of the marginalised groups being left behind had not emerged in a major manner in the first two rounds of our survey. But as time progressed and the flow of aid diminished, the feeling that certain sections of society are being left behind became pronounced. And the perception of being deprived of the aid promised by the state is shared by all sections of society. I think it’s not the mal-intention on the part of the government, but the government’s general inefficiency, that has engendered feelings among marginalised communities of being left behind.
How serious is the issue of quake-survivors having to take loans for survival and falling into a vicious debt trap?
That is a genuine and serious concern that we had already noticed by our second round of survey. But it came up in a major way in the third round. We generally assume that the earthquakes affected the rural poor. They did. But they drastically impacted the urban poor too. For the rural population, the primary source of livelihood is agriculture and animal husbandry. The earthquakes affected their homes, but not so much their sources of livelihood. The urban poor, on the other hand, were the small traders and shopkeepers whose businesses collapsed. Kathmandu was virtually deserted until a few months after the quakes. So not only were their shops destroyed, but the clientele had also disappeared.
The earthquakes also led to the collapse of many informal savings and credit groups. People who were earlier part of a financial system subsequently became excluded, and they had to take loans from local money lenders at exorbitant rates for sustaining their livelihood.
Various international donors had pledged a substantial amount of money at the donor conference Nepal organised in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes. To what extent has the government been able to convert those pledges into actual aid?
Donors might have set certain conditions for the pledged aid to be forthcoming. Whether the government has been able to meet those conditions requires some introspection on its part. It should also follow up with the concerned donors.
How different did you find humanitarian aid from the more general development aid?
The nature of aid tends to differ during humanitarian crises, during which the donors usually work on their own. But although there was a humanitarian crisis in Nepal, Nepal was not too weak a state, and it could insist that donors cannot work on their own and that they had to channel their aid through the government. Although what Nepal received was humanitarian aid, it also resembled normal development aid.
But some donors might have had misgivings about all aid being channelled through the government due to perception about corruption and other reasons. That could be a reason why the amount pledged by the donors hasn’t all been forthcoming.
How did you view the sprouting of many national and international organisations to work in quake affected areas?
I won’t be too cynical about their work. I’m sure many of these agencies have performed very well in terms of providing essential support. For example, many schools have been rebuilt; the problem of drinking water has been addressed. It’s up to the government and the Social Welfare Council to monitor these organisations and to get a dispassionate assessment of their work.
On a larger note, what kind of a role does geopolitics have in the aid Nepal receives?
Geopolitics does have a role in foreign aid. Nepal received aid from the US and India from the 1950s onward because it was a frontline state against Communist China. Geopolitics seemed to have played a role even during the earthquakes. The Indian government and various Indian non-governmental entities including religious and philanthropic groups were very forthcoming in providing aid. One tends to forget that one of the main concerns of disaster-affected people is hot food; institutions such as Ram Krishna Mission provided that to earthquake survivors. Later, because of certain images generated in the Indian media, there was some degree of resentment towards the way India provided aid.
What kind of societal and political changes did the 2015 earthquakes lead to?
Social cohesion has remained intact. Generally, other countries witness a spike in violence after a natural disaster. That hasn’t happened in Nepal. Our surveys show that the rates of crime or violence and concerns about safety haven’t increased. And it was after the earthquakes that the political parties girded themselves for writing a constitution. In a way, the earthquake was a shock that compelled the parties to get their acts together and write a constitution.
Two years on, what is the best way forward to provide succour to the quake survivors? What are the lesson learned?
The government should identify the bottlenecks due to which households haven’t been able to receive the aid pledged by the government. People have said that the aid amount covers only about a quarter of the cost required to build a house. One possibility is providing extra aid, in the form of direct cash transfers. Apart from cash, providing construction materials would also be great help to the people. Maybe the government can consider involving donors in providing such materials, like in the initial days (after the 2015 earthquakes) when it allowed certain INGOs to deliver corrugated zinc sheets.
Building people’s capacity so that they can look after themselves is generally the right approach. But in certain cases, direct cash transfers can also be very helpful. Remittances are an example of how the inflow of cash can alleviate poverty.