Sindhupalchowk, Nepal – In all the months that Sarave Tamang and his relative Tika Maya Tamang have been waiting, the skies have gone through a multitude of colours.
They were bright blue when the earth shook and brought their homes down.
Their town, Sindhupalchowk, was a cloud of dust as 95 percent of the houses crumbled. Tika Maya found the bodies of her infant son and her husband in the rubble. Her 10-year-old son Sameer went into shock. The dark pre-monsoon clouds gathered.
When it rained, Tika Maya cried with the rain.
The monsoon rains made the ground into slippery red mush. Sarave had a tarpaulin sheet for a house. At times, the rain came in through the sheets and drenched everyone.
He’d helped to dig out his nephew, who had died holding his infant son. As a driver, on the bus from Kathmandu to Chautara, he often overheard that help was sure to come.
After the monsoon, the skies cleared again.
Under the blue sky, Tika Maya and her young son Sameer built a tin shed. The government gave them $150 for their little shelter.
The winter skies were bright most days. But when the stars shone, the dew set in. Their tin houses dripped and blankets became inadequate to keep the cold away.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Eight months passed.
In Kathmandu, the National Reconstruction Committee finally got established. Thirteen hundred engineers were deployed to reassess the damage and give people a grant of $2,000. The grant comes in three phases – the final one only when people complete their earthquake resistant homes.
The government has 17 approved designs. But the cheapest house is going to cost $10,000. Citizens might get a loan of $3,000 at a low interest rate, but how they could come up with the rest of the money they have no idea.
Like many other families, Sarave is relying on his sons to grow up and go to the Gulf. As more homes remain broken, migration has increased. The only hope for many Nepalis is to spill their blood and sweat in the sweltering heat of the Gulf and Malaysia. The horror stories and even the daily return of the bodies of labourers who died in the Gulf are not enough to deter Nepal’s youth. Unemployment stands at around 46 percent.
Tika Maya does not have the option to leave. Sameer is too young. Instead she makes local moonshine, her only source of income.
But Sarave has been told that he cannot wait for his sons to earn the money. A year after the quake, Sarave got a visit from the prime minister, who came to lay the foundation stones for his house. Sarave’s house is just off the road from the town of Chautara – walking distance with a little bit of space to gather around, so just right for a VIP flying visit.
When the foundation stones were laid, he was told that his house would get built soon. Then $500 was deposited into his account. “Political cadres” would be mobilised to help people, said the prime minister. It sounded like things would move on.
But instead, government officials came and asked Sarave if he had around $5,000 to spare. Sarave thought they were hilarious. Would he have waited for his sons to grow up if he had the spare cash? Would he have chosen to live in a tin shed that drips in the rain? And to make matters more absurd, he’s been told that the design chosen for him would cost him – in government estimates – $18,000. Taking inflation into consideration, locals estimate, the cost would shoot up to $30,000.
Even then, Sarave is one of the two people in the entire district of Sindhupalchowk to get even $500 so far. He is not prepared to touch the money – not until everyone else gets it or until he has enough cash to build his house. Otherwise, he says, the money is not even enough to “hire workers to build”. A government officer told Sarave “to tell journalists” that he’s already received the money.
“I never asked for the prime minister to come to me. And I will do whatever suits me,” Sarave says defiantly.
The hole made during the foundation has been buried. The bricks the prime minister laid are long gone.
With so many houses down in Sindhupalchowk, the cabinet made a decision to appoint a reconstruction officer for the district. The volunteers the prime minister promised to recruit would have to register through this officer and by June 3. Fourteen months after the earthquake, they were to build community shelters for people living in tents.
“The officer went to Kathmandu,” a ward officer told us. “He says he has no authority to do anything..
“So many people here have been missed out. Some did not get the first $150. Some never got the funeral costs. But who are we to complain to? Please help us,” the man said, frustrated.
Of course there are no political cadres keen to volunteer. There are no community buildings being built. An engineer deployed by the government said that they have nothing to do in the field, since no house is being built.
The skies are grey again and soon they will grow dark and the monsoon will bring a blanket of rain.
In Kathmandu, the budget got passed. In Kathmandu, the authorities told people that quake victims will be taken care of. The government wants to make sure that news of ineffective implementation does not reach the international community. Journalists have been asked to self-sensor. Foreigners are under observation. Those who want to do rebuilding work in the quake-hit areas (even with their own funds) have to overcome near-impossible official hurdles.
In the meantime, tick, tock. Tick, tock. The clouds keep getting darker. For the likes of Tika Maya and Sarave, the wait keeps getting longer and longer.