Political transition and instability certainly slowed the pace of reconstruction, but we have made a lot of progress in the first three years of the NRA. The policy, legal and organizational structures adopted by the NRA have begun to yield positive results.
The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), which was established after the 25 April 2015 earthquake as a legally mandated agency for leading the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, has completed three years.
The earthquake that claimed 8,790 lives, wounded 22,300 people, destroyed and damaged over 800,000 houses, 7,553 schools, 1,197 health facilities, 415 government buildings, 752 archeologically important monuments and 383 structures owned by security agencies was the biggest disaster ever to hit Nepal, after the 1934 earthquake. It destroyed and damaged infrastructures worth Rs. 7 billion, and affected 8 million Nepali people – nearly one third of the population. As the NRA enters its fourth year, it would be important to discuss the progress made by the agency responsible for the biggest reconstruction project Nepal has ever undertaken. So, this article is an effort to examine the NRA's achievements so far, hurdles and challenges faced by it in its first three years and its future action plan.
Reconstruction amidst political transition
When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, the country was passing through the most complicated phase of its painful political transition. The Interim Constitution of 2007 was still in place, and major political parties were yet to forge a consensus on the key contents of the new constitution. This led to frequent changes of government, and it would be unfair to evaluate the NRA’s performance without considering how it was rocked by political instability. But the earthquake turned out to be a blessing in disguise in terms of ending political transition as it galvanized squabbling political parties to show flexibility and ink a deal on the thorniest issues of the constitution. The tragedy also united the nation in rescue and relief efforts.
As a result, the seemingly endless process of drafting the new Constitution was completed less than five months after the earthquake, and we were able to fulfill our primary responsibility of rescue and relief in just three months. However, a five-month-long blockade of Nepal’s southern border points badly impacted the post-earthquake recovery process. The NRA was first established through an ordinance within the first three months of the earthquake, but a political oversight allowed the ordinance to expire. The NRA got dissolved even before its office was set up.
It took another five months for the government to re-establish a legally mandated agency for the earthquake recovery and reconstruction. The current NRA was established on 27 December 2015, eight months after the earthquake. When I took charge of the NRA as its CEO exactly three years ago, I was confronted with a challenge to start reconstruction without wasting time, but I did not have the required staff, logistics and guidelines to support me. The NRA was yet to take full shape.
But the parliament identified reconstruction as a national priority area, setting a goal to accomplish the post-earthquake recovery in just five years. To help the NRA accomplish its mission, the House passed a specific law and set up high-level institutional mechanisms. It formed a Steering Committee led by the Prime Minister. The Committee, which has a leader of the main opposition as its Vice Chair and ministers and Chief Secretary as its members, provides guidance for the NRA's Executive Committee on policy, program and budget. Also, there is National Reconstruction Advisory Council chaired by the Prime Minister, which has the main opposition leader as Vice Chair and Parliamentary Party leaders of all parties in the Federal Parliament, ex-PMs and all ministers as its members. It seems the parliament envisioned such a broad advisory council to protect the NRA from being a casualty of political instability. But the parliament’s visionary provision did not ensure a stable executive committee for the NRA. Frequent changes of government also resulted in frequent changes of the NRA’s executive leadership, which slowed the pace of the reconstruction.
There was a leadership vacuum at the local level when the NRA was set up. After the promulgation of the new Constitution, the government gave priority to conducting the three tiers of election. Now, a government process is underway to adjust civil servants to implement federalism. These elections and the government staff adjustment process have also hampered the earthquake recovery.
Current situation of reconstruction
Political transition and instability certainly slowed the pace of reconstruction, but we have made a lot of progress in the first three years of the NRA. The policy, legal and organizational structures adopted by the NRA have begun to yield positive results. As of now, 45 percent of the quake-damaged houses have been rebuilt, and another 32 percent of houses are under construction.
We had conducted a geological survey to assess vulnerable settlements, which underscored a need to relocate 3,975 earthquake-affected families living in 272 landslide-prone sites. Of them, 1,963 families have already been given lands in safe areas to rebuild their houses. We have already approved 29 integrated settlement plans, which are now being implemented. Besides, a master plan is being drawn up to restore 52 ancient and indigenous settlements in and outside the Kathmandu Valley without tampering with their original and unique architecture. We have decided to provide infrastructure development grants to encourage communities to adopt integrated settlement plans. We have also decided to provide incentives for people to preserve uniqueness of their ancient and indigenous settlements.
We have also addressed the problems faced by those families whose earthquake-damaged houses were on the lands they did not own legally. They can claim housing grants by submitting recommendation letters by local governments, or any other evidence. Therefore, we have been able to accelerate the pace of rebuilding private houses, relocating villages, developing integrated resettlement plans and restoring heritage villages.
More than half the earthquake-damaged school buildings have already been rebuilt. As of now, reconstruction of 55 percent of the quake-damaged schools has been completed and 1,921 school buildings are under construction. Similarly, 54 percent of the earthquake-damaged health facilities have been rebuilt. We have completed reconstruction of 60 percent of government buildings, 27 percent of army and police buildings and 27 percent of monuments. We have set a goal to rebuild 70 percent schools, 40 percent colleges, 65 percent health facilities, 50 percent of heritage, 75 percent of government buildings, 60 percent of army-policy buildings and 50 percent of roads within this year, and the remaining works will be completed in the next two years.
Adapting to the federal structure and sustainability of reconstruction
As per the provisions made by the Legislative Parliament, the NRA must complete the earthquake recovery and reconstruction within five years of its establishment. The NRA can seek a maximum of a one-year extension. The Legislative Parliament has recently passed Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act 2017, envisaging an agency for disaster preparedness and rescue, relief and recovery in the aftermath of future disasters. In the first three years of the NRA, all the three levels of government – federal, provisional and local – have come into existence. In this changed context, the NRA must gradually transfer its experience, knowledge and skills to provisional and local governments, their local wings and local communities for the sustainability of reconstruction.
Local governments are fundamentally responsible for private houses, town planning, schools, health facilities, local heritages and infrastructures under the new Constitution. And the newly-enacted Act about disaster preparedness requires all the three levels of government to form special structures under the proposed disaster management agency. Considering these new government structures and legal instruments, the NRA has given importance to collaboration with provincial and local governments.
In this context, the NRA has begun transferring resources, rights and responsibility for mobilizing housing grants, collecting and addressing grievances about reconstruction, relocating seismically-vulnerable villages and restoring local heritage sites and infrastructure to the local governments of the earthquake-affected districts. For this, the NRA has already signed agreements with local governments in many earthquake-affected districts. The NRA aims to sign similar agreements with all the local governments of the earthquake-affected districts by mid-January 2019. Also, local reconstruction coordination committees are being formed in all the earthquake-affected municipalities and rural municipalities. Such committees will be led by mayors and rural municipality chairs, and they will coordinate and monitor all the reconstruction activities by the NRA or any other agencies in their areas.
The NRA aims to collaborate with the Disaster Management Authority, which will be formed under the newly-enacted disaster management act, and its wings at provincial, municipal and rural municipality levels. We are also setting up district-level reconstruction coordination committees to monitor and coordinate reconstruction works, ensuring effective participation of the elected representatives of people belonging to all the three levels of legislature in the reconstruction process. Also, community-level reconstruction committees are being formed in every village and ward committee to facilitate post-disaster reconstruction. Such committees will capacitate local communities for disaster preparedness as well as post-disaster rescue, relief and reconstruction works.
All the legal and policy frameworks, guidelines, procedures and organizational structures that we developed for rescue, relief and reconstruction in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake as well as our reconstruction experience are being documented. We have also produced audio and visual materials for this purpose, and we want to keep them safe by establishing earthquake museum, memorial or research center. Future generations will greatly benefit from the documentation and preservation of our experience, knowledge and expertise. We will hand over all the useful information about reconstruction to local governments, and we are also developing land use plans based on multi-hazard mapping.
At the end
Our vision of reconstruction is not just physical reconstruction but also social and economic reconstruction. We have made a little progress in terms of social and economic reconstruction. Hundreds of thousands of earthquake-displaced families have already moved into newly-built and safe homes, and hundreds of thousands more will complete rebuilding their houses within this year.
The earthquake not just destroyed their houses but it also affected their livelihood and access to health and education. They need support to rebuild their earthquake-damaged livelihood. Thus, the government has recently approved procedures to provide six types of concession loans, targeting those earthquake-affected families that are in dire need of livelihood support. We are also unveiling programs necessary for improving health and education services at the recently-rebuilt health facilities, schools and colleges. We have identified 18,000 earthquake-affected families that only comprise under-15 children, physically-disabled persons or elderly persons above 70 as the most vulnerable cohort, and we are unveiling special social security schemes for them. To make this happen, we are mobilizing business promotion experts and social mobilisers at every local level.
We will now give priority to those heritage sites and ancient settlements that lag behind others in reconstruction. We are also implementing a plan to preserve our ancient monuments.
We have recently conducted a mid-term review of our five-year earthquake reconstruction and recovery plan, and we have prepared an action plan to achieve our remaining targets within the remaining period. Our action plan will be presented in the next meeting of the steering committee.
So, the political transition and instability certainly slowed the pace of reconstruction, but the progress that we have made so far is satisfactory. By implementing our action plan with the support from all governments, agencies and stakeholders, Nepal can proudly showcase a successful model of reconstruction to future generations of Nepali people and the entire world.