Kathmandu, Nepal – Shanti Maya Tamang stood in front of her tent in Chuchepati, an area of the capital, Kathmandu, with the winter sun shining down upon her.
The warmth came as a welcome relief to the 35-year-old after the heavy rains and bitter cold of winter in the camp for those displaced by the devastating quake that shook the Himalayan nation last April.
“It has been tough to live in the tents during the winter,” she said.
Hers is one among more than 500 tarpaulin tents pitched on open ground.
What was meant to be a temporary shelter seems to have turned into a semi-permanent home for the residents, who complain of the difficulty of squeezing four or five people into a family tent measuring 2×4 metres.
Such makeshift shelters have been repeated across the country since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake last April killed more than 8,000 people and damaged or destroyed nearly a million homes.
“I could not relocate to other places, as I could not afford to rent a house,” Shanti explained. “My family of five people is packed into this tent.”
‘We have received nothing’
Ten months after the worst disaster to hit the Himalayan nation of 28 million people, the relief and reconstruction effort has been marred by delays and political bickering.
“We have received nothing from the government and have been left to fend for ourselves,” Shanti said, adding that “some help came from foreigners in the form of tarpaulin tents and rice”.
It took nearly eight months for the government to form the National Reconstruction Authority, known as the NRA, the body responsible for carrying out reconstruction after the earthquake.
Foreign donors pledged $4.1bn in aid, but the money went unspent as the NRA, even after it was formed, waited for somebody to be assigned to head it.
“NRA was started just two months ago,” explained Suresh Adhikari, a spokesman for the NRA. “We have formulated policies and guidelines, and [are] planning to expedite the reconstruction and rehabilitation work.”
Part of that, Adhikari said, will be to disburse the next instalment of reconstruction aid to those who lost their homes.
‘I have no clue about the government compensation’
The first instalment of $150 per household in emergency aid was given immediately after the quake, and soft loans have also been promised as the government grant will not cover the full cost of building a new house.
“Probably, we will start to distribute [a] grant of $1,825 for reconstruction of private houses to quake survivors from next week,” he said.
“We will start work from Dolakha district, 150km east of Kathmandu valley,” Adhikari explained, adding that it was not “possible to address all the demands of the people as reconstruction work is difficult and needs to be coordinated with different government agencies.”
Bhaskar Gautam, a researcher based in Kathmandu, attributes the delay in quake relief – like the search operation before it – to a top-down approach adopted by the government and district administrations.
“All the relief efforts were based on crude data which had to be revised later,” he said, adding that jostling by political parties to control foreign aid contributed to the delay.
“Government policy on relief and reconstruction was not properly communicated to the quake-affected families. That led to confusion,” said Bhaskar, who works for Martin Chautari, a Kathmandu-based think-tank.
Quake victims trying to reconstruct their lives confirm this assessment. “I have no clue about the government compensation,” Phoolmaya Shrestha said, referring to the $150 in emergency aid disbursed by the government.
“It’s more than 10 months but no bureaucrat or politician has visited us,” Shreshtha, who lives with her elderly and ailing husband in their bamboo and tin shack in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu explained.
An NGO built the couple’s shack on the rubble of their former home, which was destroyed in the quake.
The 62-year-old laments that her son, an undergraduate at a college on the outskirts of the capital, has been forced to take on part-time work as a plumber to help support the family.
‘There is confusion’
Even as foreign donors, NGOs, local government agencies and individuals try to help those who have lost homes and livelihoods, the magnitude of the challenge is stark.
Parts of Bhaktapur, the old quarter of Kathmandu, where Shreshtha lives, remain in ruins, with people still clearing the rubble by hand.
Raman Bhandari, an undergraduate at a college in the capital, has volunteered to help build temporary houses for the quake survivors.
The 23-year-old, who works for Youth Action Nepal, said that his NGO had built more than 100 houses – mainly for widows and older women.
“There is confusion when it comes to reconstruction. Even government schools have not been rebuilt,” he said. “NGOs have chipped in as government initiative has been lacking.”
A number of global donor agencies have pledged support, while the United Nations Children’s emergency fund UNICEF has been working to provide education, health and sanitation to those living in camps.
“In Nepal, 40 percent of children are malnourished and the quake will make things even worse. So we are trying to ensure that children’s nutrition level is adequate,” said Rupa Joshi, UNICEF’s communication manager.
To make matters worse, Nepal faced a severe fuel shortage as its southern border with India was blocked for five months due to protests by ethnic Madhesi people, who are demanding amendments to the country’s new constitution,which was passed in September.
The blockade, which was only lifted two weeks ago, affected quake relief work as many essential medicines and building materials are imported from India.