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Mountains without men


LEFT BEHIND: Even after receiving her reconstruction grant last year, Sajina Tamang (left) had to wait for months before beginning to rebuild her earthquake-damaged house. Her husband and brother-in-law are both in Malaysia, and there are not many men left in Syaule village of Sindhupalchok to help women like her.

Two years later, a serious shortage of construction workers is hampering post-earthquake rebuilding

Sindhupalchok, March 10, 2017: Sajina Tamang (pictured, right) waited for her first installment of the Rs 300,000 reconstruction grant so she could rebuild her earthquake-damaged house. She finally got the first Rs 50,000 last year, but had to wait for months to begin rebuilding her home because she could not find workers.

There was hope after the earthquake that reconstruction would create jobs and even convince Nepali migrant workers to come home. However, the opposite seems to have happened with young men migrating in even larger numbers from the 14 affected districts, creating a crippling shortage of masons, carpenters and labourers.

In Syaule village 90 km east of Kathmandu, there are few young men left. There are only women like Tamang, waiting for someone to help lay the foundation to new homes without which they will not be eligible for the rest of the grant from the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA).

To be sure, young men had started deserting the district during the conflict. In Syaule the exodus peaked after the VDC Chair was murdered by Maoist guerrillas in 2004. Even after the ceasefire 11 years ago, the men haven’t returned, preferring to work in the Gulf, Malaysia or in Kathmandu.

Sajina’s husband, 22-year-old Raju Tamang, is in Malaysia and sent money home after the earthquake, but couldn’t get leave to return. Raju’s younger brother is also in Malaysia, and his wife lives with Sajina.

One sunny afternoon this week, Sajina and her sister-in-law were carrying stones salvaged from the ruins of their house. Their ailing father-in-law squatted nearby, and Sajina’s four-year-old daughter was playing in the dirt.

The family finally found two masons and a carpenter, and Sajina and her sister-in-law are now helping them because they cannot afford to hire helpers. She says: “They are the only men here who can build houses and are in high demand. Everyone wants them.”

Bishnumaya Karki dug the foundation of her new home two months ago, but she has not found masons to rebuild her house yet.

Sindhupalchok was the worst-hit district in 2015, with half the nearly 8,900 fatalities here. In Syaule itself, 63 people were killed and 1,164 houses damaged. The Safer Migration (SaMi) Project estimates that 8,000 men have migrated from Sindhupalchok after the earthquake, 450 from Syaule alone.

Bishnumaya Karki (above, far right) received the first installment of her reconstruction grant in September, and started digging a new foundation. But she can’t find masons to begin rebuilding. She says: “I have the money and the material, but I am in the queue for masons.”

Karki has been living in a shed with her ailing husband and father-in-law, their two grown-up sons serve in the Nepal Police and live in Kathmandu with their families.

Only 250 families in Syaule have laid foundations or built new houses, but the NRA doesn’t want to start distributing the second installment when a majority haven’t even spent the first cache to lay their foundations.

“Young men are scarce, but skilled masons and carpenters are even more scarce,” says Ramjee Thapa, Secretary of Syaule VDC. “People now have grants, but no manpower.”

The NRA spokesperson Yam Lal Bhoosal admits the shortage of skilled masons and carpenters is hindering reconstruction in all earthquake-affected districts. “We cannot allow haphazard reconstruction,” he says. “But for earthquake-resistant reconstruction, there is a huge shortage of skilled masons and carpenters.”

The Nepal Army recently agreed with the NRA to conduct training for brick-laying and woodwork for villagers so they can rebuild houses on their own. But like everything else, it is too little too late for people like Raj Bahadur Shrestha of Syaule. He says: “There are few young men left who can be trained in masonry and carpentry.”

Overbooked masons

Bel Bahadur Thapa (pictured above) has been a mason for 17 years but in his whole life has never been as busy as now. After the NRA distributed the first installment of reconstruction grants in September last year, everyone started rebuilding in his village at the same time.

Thapa is one of the few skilled masons in Irkhu of Sindhupalchok, where almost every house was destroyed in April 2015. After attending a week-long course conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Thapa is now leading a group of masons, carpenters and helpers to build a quake-resistant house for a blind earthquake survivors in Irkhu under a UNDP-funded program.

Thapa has built four houses back-to-back since November, and is booked for the next few months. “So many people want me to build their houses, but I can only work on one house at a time,” he told us during a break from brick-laying.

Thapa earns Rs 700 a day in Irkhu, but can easily earn Rs 1,000 if he went to the district capital of Chautara. Thapa used to have few jobs before the earthquake, now he has too many.

Sanjaya Pariyar of UNDP says: “All masons and carpenters are now booked for months. They finish construction in one site, and immediately move on to the next one.”

By Om Astha Rai