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Rising from rubbles

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Kathmandu, April 24, 2016: They are not construction workers. However, after losing their sweet home in the devastating earthquake of April 25 last year, Kasaini Tamang’s family was forced to learn lot. Among other survival skills, children and elders of the family also turned out to be builders in just a few months. For instance, an attractive concrete house they boast of today is the result of their own hard work.

“The government did not show up for our resettlement. We got tired of waiting for help,” said Kasaini, 67. “It’s made up of bricks, sand, stones. Good enough to survive,” she added.

Creases on her skin and graying hair speak volumes about her retiring days. However, Kasaini is the strength of the entire family. Her sons and their children do not hesitate to credit her for the six-room house. “Finishing is not yet complete,” said Kasaini, adding that the house is earthquake resistance though no professional engineer was hired. Her son Dawa, meanwhile, informed that the family had gathered idea about earthquake-resistance technologies and had applied that to the best of their knowledge while constructing the house where they are shifting very soon.

“It’s a huge relief now. Break from the tent,” said Dawa. “We stopped waiting for house aid and started to rebuild house on our own. Hard work paid off,” said an elated Dawa.

Almost Rs 800,000 has already been spent for the construction of the house. The Tamang family estimates that around Rs 200,000 more would be needed. Kasaini had taken loan from women’s saving group and cooperative. “Financial support from the government was not guaranteed. So, I took help from cooperative. If the government later gives anything, we’d gladly accept it. Or else, we are bound to pay off the loan on our own,” she said.

SangeTamang, 36, is also a proud owner of a newly-constructed house. He says the earthquake-resistant technology of the house makes him feel relaxed no matter how hard the entire last one year remained. “We faced enough hardship since the earthquake. Now this house gives us some respite,” he said. He took loan from a bank for the purpose. “Around Rs 600,000 have been spent so far,” Sange added.

In lack of government-run rebuilding process, hundreds of families in Sindhupalchowk are following the footsteps of Sange and Kasaini. Many have reused the materials from their destroyed houses and almost everyone has taken loan either from cooperatives or banks. The earthquake victims are wary of the nearing monsoon and want to ensure better shelter before another disaster befalls on them.

Rebuilding of houses by the quake victims themselves is underway in the district headquarters Chautara, Melamchi, Barhabise, Tatopani and Helambu, among several towns and villages.
 
Rs 200,000 not enough

Not everyone in Sindhupalchowk has the means and courage to rebuild houses on their own, however. Some are still desperately waiting for the government aid. Hitbir Tamang, 60, of Saule village removed the debris of his quake-destroyed house much earlier and has been expecting government assistance so that he could erect a new one on the same spot.

“Construction cost is too expensive. Materials do not come for cheap rate either. Low cost house is not possible,” he said. The concept of quake-resistant house post-earthquake is clear to everyone in Sindhupalchowk, including Hitbir. He wants a house that can withstand tremors.

The government has promised to provide Rs 200,000 for rebuilding to the quake victims, but has not released the amount yet. According to Hitbir, the cost of rebuilding a house is much higher than the government-promised grant. Saving from the current work and lifestyle is simply impossible for the likes of Hitbir to construct a house.

“We are struggling for survival. No easy job, no farms to cultivate. We were devastated after the earthquake,” said Hitbir. “From where are we going to manage money for rebuilding? What the government gives is too less for a house,” he lamented.

Hundreds of quake victims like Hitbir are looking forward to getting substantial support from the government so that they could lead normal life once again. Basically the communities in the high hills of Sindhupalchowk belong to very poor class.

“The house we had was our lifetime earning. After that was taken away by the disaster, nothing is left with us,” Hitbir said. “If the government could release the said amount on time and add little more to that, we could also build a house,” he added. In Hitbir’s village, what the people cultivate in field suffices for no more than three months. The locals lament that securing food has always been their first struggle which gives them little time to manage other essentials.

Building experts agree that the promised Rs 200,000 is not enough. Even after adding the soft loan of Rs 300,000 that is to be provided to the victims, the total amount is not sufficient for an earthquake-resistance building, according to Tanka Prasad Gautam, chief of division office of the Department of Urban Development and Construction. He added that Rs 415,000 is needed to build the cheapest house. “The victims have no capacity to add to the grant money. With the amount to be provided by the government, it’s not possible to erect a house with minimum facility,” he said.

Parliamentarian from Sindhupalchowk, Sher Bahadur Tamang, also stressed for bigger amount of grant for house. “We have been discussing over the issue. The bank loan needs to be turned into aid. They could ensure minimum arrangement if they get at least Rs 500,000,” he said.
 
When will rebuilding process begin?

After the government failed to act on time, quake victims have voluntarily carried out reconstruction work. Many have already built new houses by themselves. However, this is not going on in a big scale. People are mentally prepared to get into the work and ensure better shelter for themselves before the start of the rainy season. However, lack of resources has set their limits. On the basis of the number of cards issued to earthquake victims, there’s need to build 90,000 houses. The figure is however under verification process.

Chief District Officer Gorkarna Mani Duwadi said that a team of engineers are busy estimating the cost of the houses destroyed. He informed that the reconstruction work would proceed only after monsoon. “If everything goes well, quick reconstruction work would go on in Chautara, Melamchi, Bahrabise, Tatopani, Jalbire and nearby areas. Due to transportation facility, we hope things could be sped up there,” said Duwadi. “Due to several processes, reconstruction work may not start before monsoon.”

Lack of laborers is a great challenge for the reconstruction work. As the entire district was hard hit by the earthquake, massive effort is needed to fix things. There is lack of human resources in Golche, Gumba, Pangtang, Selang, Hagaam, Ghotharli, Karthali, Baruwa, Bhotang, Gunsa, Thangpalkot and Thangpaldhap, among other villages that lie in high altitude areas in Sindhupalchowk. Poor transportation service is another hurdle for the rebuilding process. Many of those villages usually remain isolated during monsoon due to worse condition of bridges and roads. The earthquake further damaged the infrastructures. According to a social worker of Gumba village, Prem Tamang, rebuilding work is now unlikely to take place in the hilly areas before next winter.

This means, no better shelter for quake victims even in the coming monsoon. They feel dejected that days of miseries are not over yet.

Govt buildings no better

Schools, hospitals and government offices were also badly rocked by the earthquake. Those needed to be brought to shape promptly for the service of the people. However, the infrastructures still lie in sorry state. According to chief of District Health Office, Dr Sagar Kumar Rajbhandari, working under tent is so taxing. “Patients are the most affected. Treatment does not go well,” he said. The only biggest hospital in the district, the district hospital awaits massive repairing after its pillars and other parts were badly damaged by the earthquake. Dr Rajbhandari said that his regular plea for the repairing has been ignored so far. “The district hospital is providing service from open ground,” he added.

Government offices of education, health, agriculture, forest and irrigation, among others have no proper building either. All of the offices are managing their day-to-day work under tents. According to CDO Duwadi, repairing the buildings is taking time as the government did not give full shape to the National Reconstruction Authority on time. “Due to the delay in it, everything related are getting delayed,” he said.

Some are more in need

While some quake victims have managed to erect houses for themselves and some other are in the process of doing so, dozens of others here are in need of attention. Chitra Bahadur Khatri is one of the quake victims who has been living a deplorable life of a displaced in a community jungle since the disaster. He hardly misses radio news to follow what the government has been doing for them. However, no exciting news is ever aired. He understands that only ‘talks’ are going on and the implementation of the plans or talks never materializes.

“When you are living in a very pathetic condition and have no means to change things by yourself, you turn to the government for help. But our government is not sensitive,” he said. The local of Dadagaun not only lost his house to the earthquake but his farm also turned into a useless land. “There isn’t any situation to return to our village. Cracks are there in all over the land. We cannot build hut there,” he said. Dadagaun is equally prone to landslides which has forced all the people from there to shift elsewhere.

Chitra Bahadur said the locals are fed up with the government’s attitude. He demanded actions at the earliest to resettle the displaced. Around 19 families of his locality have been managing their livelihoods in the jungle. “Even if the government gives us money to erect house, we have no land for it. Can we build house without land?” Chitra Bahadur questioned.

The government estimates over 5,000 families of the entire district have been displaced in the district while some have taken refuge in the capital or elsewhere. They have not been able to return to their place due to worsened soil quality and high risk of landslide. Even though the government had earlier proposed integrated settlement, this so far is limited just to talks.

Rubbles not cleared yet

One year down the line, the rubbles in almost all parts of Sindhupalchowk still gives the feeling that the tremors perhaps were recent event. Except for Naya Bazar and Mude, no part of the district offers view of undamaged structures. Towns and villages have not come back to normalcy. Rubbles of damaged houses and other structures lie as they were. The district’s market hub Barhabise seems equally lifeless.

Administrative center Chautara gives the same feeling. Around half-a-dozen bridges that would connect villages to the center have not yet been repaired. It is hard for the people to gather hope and confidence for a better tomorrow.

Fighting spirit intact

No matter what happens, life goes on. And who else would know this better than the earthquake victims? They understand that the government showed apathy toward them. Their life would perhaps have been far better by now if the government had displayed political will. However, it’s never too late for a new beginning. For the earthquake survivors, surviving the disaster in itself was a huge relief. The harrowing tale of narrow escape from death is the secret behind their undying spirit to continue fighting for life, which they now cherish as the most precious thing. Each and every individual of Sindhupalchowk have in their memories the horrible scenes of devastation. Courage was only thing that kept them moving and it still is.

Chin Bahadur Gole of Ghoche village looks wise and patient while he narrates the entire story. “Disaster befell upon us. We observed the drama of the nature and we endured it, we accepted it and have come this far with courage and fighting spirit,” Gole summed up. “Miseries have not ended. However, life’s slowly getting back to normalcy and we cherish that. We are determined to rise from the rubbles,” he said.