Bhaktapur, Nepal – Rashmila Awal changes baby Sonish’s clothes after giving him an early morning oil massage, just as she did a year ago, shortly before her house crumbled, burying her then five-month-old son beneath it.
“Mum had just left to do some errands, and I ran away as soon as I felt the tremor,” remembers Rashmila‘s 11-year-old daughter, Soniya. She quickly returned to the upper floor to pick up Sonish, but was struck and left unconscious as her baby brother was trapped beneath a cupboard.
A few hours later, Soniya was rescued, but it was 22 hours before Sonish was pulled from the rubble with little more than a couple of scratches. Now, a scar on his thigh is the only physical reminder of what he endured.
In April 2015, a photo of a dusty Sonish gave some hope after Nepal’s deadly earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people, injured 22,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands.
But hope is something the family says they are now running out of.
Despite $4.2bn being pledged by international donors, little progress has been made in rebuilding the country. Today, the reconstruction of damaged private houses should have started. But nearly 900,000 families are still waiting for the work to resume.
‘We don’t expect anything from the government’
“We don’t expect anything from the government. Only people have supported us,” complains 36-year-old Rashmila, who is temporarily living with her family in a one-room-flat located two kilometres away from the ruins of her former home in the centre of Bhaktapur.
According to Bhaktapur’s recently appointed chief development officer, Tej Prasad Paudel, around 28,000 houses were destroyed and 329 people killed in Nepal’s fourth most affected district.
National authorities budgeted $221 on emergency response plus $147 more on winter clothes for each of the affected households. Although such a small amount would do little to address the victims’ needs, many say they did not even receive that compensation in its entirety.
Rashmila says she had to split the relief aid among her relatives. “We used to live with my husband’s brothers and wives under his parents’ house,” she explains.
The Nepalese tradition of having houses inhabited by joined families, and a lack of property certificates, has proved problematic for many families trying to access their aid entitlement.
Unequal aid distribution
The unequal distribution of aid was aggravated by claims of false beneficiaries. “Nearly 50 percent of the allegedly damaged houses in Sindhupalchowk [Nepal’s most devastated region] were registered after the earthquake,” says 31-year-old Krishna Shrestha, an assistant at Kathmandu’s Tilganga Hospital who was born and raised in Sindhupalchowk’s Melamchi village.
In recognition of these eligibility issues, around 5,000 civil engineers were deployed to verify damage and resume the reconstruction of private houses a few months ago. A year after the disaster, the country’s National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has just opened the registration process for affected families to access the 200,000 rupees ($1,878) grant for rebuilding each house.
“A typical farmhouse may have more than one building. So if one of them collapsed, some people would declare that all structures were damaged. Now the criteria will be based on the kitchen in order to make a house eligible,” explains United Nations Development Programme country director Renaud Meyer, who agrees that public funds were not only unequally distributed but were too small to cover victims’ needs.
“We can afford this room only because my friend lowered the rent down to 2,000 rupees [around $18],” explains Rashmila. As a truck driver, her husband, 34-year-old Sham Krishna Awal’s $84 monthly wage doesn’t meet the family’s bills, which total $90 a month.
But Sonish’s survival story attracted the attention of private donors as well as the media.
“Soniya school’s fee are being sponsored and ordinary people have supported us,” says Rashmila, sitting on the bed in the 6sq-metre space the family shares, some gifts displayed alongside Sonish’s toys.
Still, Rashmila’s plight is better than that of her sister, who is sharing a tent with four family members.
Twenty-six-year-old Sadika Pragapati invested all the aid she received from the government in building the shelter and renting the land it occupies in one of the several camps scattered across Bhaktapur.
Most of the city’s displaced used all the aid they received within the first month after the earthquake.
Many of the nearly 3,500 residents of Chachopati, Nepal’s largest camp, which is located in Kathmandu, claim that the little help offered by the authorities was rapidly spent on food.
“As per family, we gave 400 grammes per person, or half a kilo, in the main affected areas,” explains Shrimani Raj Khamal, a divisional manager and spokesperson at Nepal Food Corporation.
According to Khamal, the country’s main supplier distributed just 4,500 metric tonnes of rations nationwide, but had 26,000 metric tonnes in storage.
He explains that food provisions depend on the orders placed by local governments. “We have plenty of stock to provide, but if nobody demands, we can’t supply affected areas.”
The inadequacy of aid provision was later worsened by shortages due to the long blockade of the Nepal-India border.
“A bottle of petrol rose up to 10,000 rupees [around $93] on the black market, and we couldn’t find some medicines,” explains Rashmila.
The blockade increased the price of goods by up to 50 percent, according to the World Food Programme’s communications officer in Nepal, Seestashma Thapa, who adds: “The emergency situation has passed and we shouldn’t make people dependent on aid supplies because, otherwise, they would never [get back on] their feet.”
‘They will privilege some people’
It took eight months, once the initial recovery phase had passed, for the reconstruction agency, the NRA, to be formed. The body now faces the challenge of rebuilding a country wracked by political instability.
“That institution is a political appointment and we are in a big political transition …. If we have another change in the government, this will clearly affect the way the NRA will work,” says Ashish Thapa, the executive director of Transparency International Nepal, an organisation that monitors national governance.
Cases of embezzlement have risen in Nepal’s recent history. Five years ago, the Commission for Investigation for the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) blocked the Local Government and Community Development Programme, intended to help the country’s poor, because it had been misused to benefit political parties and their cronies instead.
Cases of embezzlement have mushroomed recently. Last Monday, the CIAA filed a case against more than 30 former officials of the Poverty Alleviation Fund accused of pocketing nearly half-a-million dollars.
Rashmila, like many others, doesn’t expect much from the NRA. “They will privilege some people just like the Village Community Development gave more coupons for food to their relatives,” she says.
Walking away from the ruins of her house, Rashmila is stopped a couple of times as neighbours ask for photos with her baby. “This money will help us buy land to build our new house,” she says, taking the little money they offer her.
Unlike the rest of victims, Rashmila has received around $1,800 in private donations thanks to Sonish, the baby boy who survived 22 hours amid the rubble of his destroyed house.