Nepal remembers its 9,000 dead, and a promise lost in shifting priorities

              With an estimated 9 lakh families affected by the earthquakes, the problems of an overwhelmed country have compounded in the last one year.. The start of commemorative events in Kathmandu to remember those who died in the 2015 earthquake. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Balloons of all sizes and colours floated past Durbar Square in Kathmandu Saturday as Nepal began commemorative ceremonies to remember the nearly 9,000 who perished on April 25 last year when an earthquake struck and was followed by another 17 days later. But in Bhaktapur, 15 km outside Kathmandu, the sense of loss and grief has given way to deep worry as people come to terms with the grim reality of their little world.

A two-centuries-old building, with generations of construction showing through motifs of metallic deities on windows sills, and wood and mud around bricks, tilts precariously on to the street. Inside, in an 8×10 room on the ground floor, Bishnu Ram doesn’t want to move. Not that he doesn’t want to. But because he thinks he doesn’t have an option. “Where will I go from here? This is my livelihood,” he says, sitting in his small grocery shop. The rest of the building is deserted — the owner has moved out.

“It is only when the small aftershocks come that I run out. This is an old building. I have been here 32 years and, for the first time, I feel scared.” Bishnu Ram is counting on three wooden planks, nearly 12 feet high. Each was bought for Nepali Rs 8,000, the “prevailing” market rate for a plank. “I am a small person, may be the government has to attend to more important issues.”

Bishnu Ram lives close to Bhaktapur Durbar, the heart of Bhaktapur which is home to two of seven UNESCO world heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley.

With an estimated 9 lakh families affected by the earthquakes, the problems of an overwhelmed country have compounded in the last one year as it stumbled along the way to setting priorities: a new Prime Minister took charge in October; the government promulgated a new democratic Constitution the same month which lit Madhes and stopped all supplies from India; the country’s reconstruction agency, constituted in December, is marred by internal politics, its chief is being investigated for graft; and, Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa thinks there is still the possibility of the monarchy returning .

Renaud Meyer, Country Director of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told The Sunday Express: “After afew days of confusion and emotion, the government was able to rapidly put in place a coordination mechanism and search-and-rescue efforts which translated into a high quality post-disaster needs assessment. As a result, the government was very successful in mobilising donor funding in June last year. There was consensus around what needs to be done, the priorities, and there was a very good sense of collaboration and partnership.”

But things soon went wrong. “During July-August, things started going the wrong way. The attention of the political parties started to focus on the Constitution. The analysis at the time was that the country is showing a high level of solidarity and consensus as a nation. A lot of political parties felt it was the right time to push this long-awaited Constitution. And all the attention of the government shifted,” he said.

So far, only 641 people have received house reconstruction grant in a single district, one year on — an indicator of the extent of the mess.

Sitting on the porch of a small house in Bhaktapur, 95-year-old Harsamaya wonders if her house will be rebuilt “before death”.

Witness to two mighty earthquakes — the other was the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake — Harsamaya rates the one in 2015 as the worst. Her home, or what’s left of it, is over 300 years old. “It used to be two storeys of rooms, but only one room remains now,” says her daughter-in-law Gita Kapal, “and six persons live in the room.” There is no money to go elsewhere, or to reconstruct. In one year, only rubble has been picked up, not the pieces of their lives.

Sumit Palikhel’s four-storey house was flattened last year. A few days ago, he started reconstruction at the same spot. “It will cost (Nepali) Rs 1 crore. I will construct a floor or two for now,” he says. He knows of the Rs 2 lakh that will be given for reconstruction in three instalments, but he can’t wait. “We have been living on rent nearby and for one year we have been waiting for it. There has only been talk. Who knows if it will even come,” he says.

In other parts of Kathmandu, in Chuchepati, Chabahil and Naya Basti, Boudha, there are hundreds still living in tents, as the homes or the facilities haven’t been restored. Man Bahadur Tamang, a labourer, has long spent the (Nepali) Rs 25,000 he received as aid. His two-storey mud-and-brick house, about half an hour away from the Chabahil tent, collapsed, and now his sustenance is the odd job he manages.

Homes bore the brunt of the 7.8 earthquake on April 25, while the aftershocks — a 6.9 the next day and 7.3 on May 12 — felled the remaining shaky houses still standing.

As much as 58 per cent of the effect was on the social sector, of which housing constituted 86 per cent. This was followed by the productive sector (25 per cent), infrastructure (10 per cent) and the other sectors accounted for the rest.

At the Boudha tent camp, families from Sindhupalchok have stayed back since there are no hospitals or schools for children, or a roof above their heads at home. Also, they fear landslides in Sindhupalchok when the monsoon returns a few months from now. As many as 35,000 class rooms and 956 hospitals or clinics have been damaged.

The list of things to restore is endless. As per a preliminary list of the Department of Archaeology, 133 historical structures had entirely collapsed, 95 had partially collapsed, while 515 others were partially damaged. But the department has its hands full. Sitting in her Bhaktapur office, Department of Archaeology’s Chief Officer Mangala Pradhan says: “In Bhaktapur, we will restore the important structures by awarding contracts, while others will be restored by the municipality.” Through her window, the rubble of the Bhaktapur durbar is still visible.WATCH INDIAN EXPRESS VIDEOS HERE

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