Getting the facts straightIt’s high time the government and donors made an honest assessment of reconstruction and resettlement works in earthquake-affected areas
While earthquake victims in most affected areas are braving snow, relations between the authority supposed to take care of them and the government are heating up in a bad way. According to the meteorology department, almost all districts that were hit hardest by the 2015 quake have seen more than average snowfall this week. And there have been reports that people in temporary shelters in those areas have been suffering from harsh conditions.
Just when people had begun to forget that many families affected by the earthquake were still homeless, the snowfall in the north-central and north-eastern parts of the country has come as a grim reminder of their plight. And the issue has also been highlighted by a fiery exchange between the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) and the government.
Digesting the figures
The cabinet asked the authority’s Chief Executive Officer Sushil Gyawali to explain what the government calls a ‘snail-paced’ performance in post-quake reconstruction work. According to media reports, Prime Minister Prachanda was unhappy with Gyawali—who was appointed by the former KP Oli government—over the “delayed disbursement of the first instalment of housing grants for quake-affected families.” Gyawali issued a media note and said he would explain in detail his achievements and also the challenges his office faced. In its progress report published on its website, the NRA has said that more than 450,000 householders have been given housing grants. It also claims that more than 41,000 new houses were built and over 17,000 were under construction. The progress report shows 200 school buildings were already reconstructed and 1,200 others are being rebuilt. The website is peppered with impressive figures.
In terms of money, it boasts of having spent nearly Rs22.5 billion during the last fiscal year—and stresses that no money was frozen, unlike with the usually unspent government development budgets. During the first quarter of this fiscal year, it says it has spent Rs21 billion. The finance ministry’s website shows it had disbursed Rs22.6 billion for the NRA in the first quarter of the current fiscal year. Of that amount, nearly Rs38.5 million were meant for the “coordination committees being formed in the fourteen most affected districts.” If that means the committees are yet to be formed, you can imagine the real pace of work.
Let’s try to digest some more figures from the NRA website. It shows that the budget allocated for it by the finance ministry for this year was Rs138 billion. By that account, the first quarterly budget it should have received is around Rs47 billion, while what it got in the first quarter was less than half of that. As of writing this, Gyawali had submitted his explanation to the government on Wednesday but its details were not out officially.
Media reports say he has defended his performance and has accused the finance and general administration ministries of not cooperating with him.
In an interview I did for the BBC, the chief district officer in Gorkha, Jitendra Basnet, said all affected families had already received the first instalment of housing grants. “We are waiting for them to come for the second instalment but they have not come yet.” But he also added that many families that had already received the first instalment had not built their houses yet. “Perhaps it was because of the festivals that kept them from building the new houses.”
Elephant in the room
Officials with the local administration in Sindhupalchok district admitted that many affected families still continued to live in temporary shelters and government was doing all it could to help. The central government’s response to Gyawali’s explanation, as of this writing, remains to be seen. There were suggestions that he might be sacked if the cabinet meeting found his explanation unsatisfactory. One can imagine how much politics is at play on this issue. While the two sides have locked horns, Gyawali has also tried to draw attention to another issue: foreign aid. The NRA website has these figures: Rs410 billion as committed during the international conference for reconstruction, Rs343 billion actual commitment and Rs278 billion worth agreement reached with the international community.
We all remember how proudly the government had declared back then that it had secured a $4.4 billion commitment from donors for the reconstruction mission. The NRA website says the actual commitment was over 15 percent less and, more importantly, the Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with donors were for nearly half of that amount. The question now is how much foreign aid has really come in for reconstruction works. A fact sheet issued by the World Bank last year, for instance, said: “The World Bank Group has offered up to half a billion dollars to finance the reconstruction of Nepal.” It mentioned different programmes that were to be funded under the announced assistance.
Other donors might as well be able to provide details. But what we need to know is how much of the committed aid has been delivered and, most importantly of all, how much, including from the government’s own budget, has actually reached the ground. As long as we don’t have answers to these questions, the post-quake reconstruction agenda will be the elephant in the room. And as long as things remain like that, we will not be able to know if the slogan ‘build back better’ has actually worked—or if it has rather been a ‘build back badly’ experience.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London