Three years after the earthquake, reconstruction has gathered pace in Sindhupalchowk. Houses are being constructed all around, as number of migrant workers from other districts and neighboring India has surged in the last six months.
By Girish Giri
Bhojpuri voices mumbled on the hill, as distinct as the Chinese language heard from the radio far away.
On Friday (April 13), houses were being built at an old neighbourhood of district headquarter Chautara. The neighbourhood is the most affected area by the earthquake in the whole city. Reconstruction has just taken speed here.
At almost every construction site, rocks, sand and cement is being aggregated on one side while walls are being raised on the other.
Among the rigorously working people, most of them had faces different from that of the people from this place.
“Where do you come from?” I asked in Bhojpuri language.
The way I was surprised hearing the Madhesi voice in the high altitude Tamang village, they were also surprised to hear someone from the hills speak Bhojpuri. But this (awkwardness) did not last for long. They soon opened up after the familiarity.
Motihari is about an hour’s drive from the Indian border town Raxaul. It is the headquarters of Eastern Champaran district in Bihar.
I was surprised again.
“We are more than five thousand workers in Chautara area from Motihari alone,” they added, “Further up, there are migrant workers from as far as Orissa.”
They also informed that there were a lot of Bhojpuri speaking people from Nepal and India in Chautara. But what inspired them to travel all the way from such a long distance in search of work?
“We get paid more here,” they said. “In Motihari, we get Indian Rs. 250 (Nepali Rs. 400). Here we are getting Rs. 1,000 per day with food and housing.”
According to them, laborers are getting between Rs. 800 to Rs. 1,000 in Sindhupalchowk at present. The skilled workers are getting over Rs. 1,400.
“We cannot even imagine this much money in Motihari,” they said. “The number of migrant workers here from our hometown is increasing day by day.”
It’s getting hot in Madhes these days. But mornings and evenings are still chilly in these hills at 1,600 meters above sea level.
“When we go back in the village and tell them of the situation here, others also get excited to come,” they said, “Money is the most important for workers.”
What about the language and culture?
Thank god, these Bhojpuri speaking Bihari people can converse with us. How would the people from as far as Orissa manage?
“They can talk with themselves,” the house owner who was raising the foundation from the slope looked up to us and said, “All we need is our work done.”
Three years after the earthquake, reconstruction has gathered pace in Sindhupalchowk. Houses are being constructed all around.
The main reason behind all this is - these new faces that have arrived all of a sudden.
The number of people who had come as migrant workers from other districts and India had suddenly increased in the past six months, said the house owner.
“The only reason we could not build our houses for two and half years after the earthquake was that,” he said, “We did not have any workers and masons.”
He said, people thronged to the village after the daily rates of Rs. 900 for skilled workers and Rs. 600 for laborers was revised in the district.
The government statistics also prove this sudden change.
“About 3,800 houses had been demolished by earthquake in Chautara alone. Now, 3500 houses are being built in full speed," said Tanka Gautam, acting chief of District Project Implementation Unit of Housing Division. “Even till November last year, only 15 percent had received the second installment.”
Now, the percentage has reached 75. The construction speed can be estimated from this alone.”
This means, out of 83,600 beneficiaries in the district, 61,500 have taken the second installment.
According to the provisions of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the beneficiaries get Rs. 50,000 as soon as they sign an agreement. After that, when their foundation is ready they get their second installment of Rs. 150,000 and they get the third installment of Rs. 100,000 when the roof is ready to be installed.
According to Rudra Malla, head of the NRA in Sindhupalchowk, almost 80 percent of the damaged houses in the district are being rebuilt. Sixteen percent of the beneficiaries have even submitted application for the third installment.
The NRA office was established late and even after the establishment of the office it took a lot of time to address the grievances, according to Malla. The reconstruction took speed only in the recent days, after more than 300 technicians were deployed, he concludes.
According to Gautam from the Housing Division, there are about 9,500 people with building skills in the district. But, he estimates, that about 150,000 workers are being deployed to construct the houses in the district at present.
“We don’t have an accurate data of the workers,” said Gautam. “But, it is true that most of them come from other districts and from India.”
As a result, one can see people from Motihari working in the construction site as well as on the street - much more than what people here used to see in hair-cutting saloons and small shops before.
We encountered another group on the main road as soon as we walked down from the old market. They were walking in a group for lunch.
Their facial features and body movements suggested they are migrants.
Chautara has got a new face in the recent days compared to the recent past. Suddenly Chautara has worn a multi-cultural look.
It's not only Chautara that has changed its face. The whole of Sindhupalchowk district has changed with the entry of the migrant workers.
From Chautara, we headed directly towards the way down from Melamchi. This was the same path on which I trekked up to Gorkha one and a half years ago. I had walked almost up to the epicenter through the earthquake affected areas in two weeks.
At that time, this whole area looked devastated. Now, the number of tin-shelters found on the way has reduced. The village is slowly coming back to life. The otherwise green hills are now being covered by corrugated tin-sheets on the roofs.
At that time, Pipaldanda, seven kilometers west of Chautara, was like a refugee camp. Now, it has changed.
“Perhaps, only 25 percent of the houses remain to be built in this village,” said Mekh Bahadur Baniya, who had a house right at the bend, “Almost everyone has finished the foundation work.”
According to Baniya, a pensioner of Police Department with a commanding voice in the village, houses had not been rebuilt on time in this village due to lack of manpower.
“There is not a single person of the working age in these villages dear!” said Baniya. “Who will raise the fallen houses?”
“The migrant workers have been a god-sent in this situation.”
“People from Surkhet, Jajarkot, Rolpa and the whole of Madhes have come here,” he further said, pointing to the hillside, “There might be over 400 workers working in this slope alone.”
He shared his experience that the work had progressed not only because of the migrant workers but also because of the cooperation from the government agencies. Work has progressed because the timing of the government grants and the arrival of migrant workers coincided.
“These migrant workers bring back more people when they go back to their village,” he said. “DPC (damp-proof course) foundation work of about 150 to 200 houses completed in the village within a month.”
Even with so many migrant workers, manpower is still not sufficient to meet the requirement, according to Baniya. “Due to lack of workers to lay DPC, they are alternating in two sites at a time.”
Even before Baniya had finished his points, Kumar Basnet, standing on the side, was ready to speak.
“One should not lie,” he said. “Though these migrant workers charge high, they do a lot better job.”
They start work at eight in the morning and work continuously even after six in the evening, he said.
According to Basnet, most workers were introduced by labor suppliers. The suppliers themselves work along with other laborers as masons or laborers.
“The supplier takes a cut of Rs. 50 per day for the first month from the pay of the workers he introduced,” Basnet said, “In return, these suppliers give some advance money to the family of the workers before they leave their villages.”
Tikaram Chaudhary from Bijauri, Dang was building Basnet’s house in Pipaldanda. Teekaram came here in January.
“We came after the supplier invited us,” he said. “We were twelve of us to leave the village.”
He had never left Dang before.
“When the supplier explained, we came over,” he said. “Earthquake affected area was much talked about in our place.”
Tikaram agreed to come here and work as he was curious to see what has actually happened.
“The supplier worked together with us and also took Rs. 50 per day from our wage,” he said. “He has gone to a different place now.”
Now, Tikaram keeps all of his Rs. 1,000 a day wage along with food and lodging facility.
As Tikaram was talking and digging he found a dented ladle.
“This is where the old house had fallen down in the earthquake,” he said. “Another house is being constructed on the same place where the old house had fallen.”
There were no casualties as the people in the house escaped on time.
Back home in Dang, Tikaram lives with his parents, wife and two sons. The eldest son is eight years old, studying in third grade. The other son is seven months old.
“Don’t you miss home?”
“Why not? I miss it very much,” he quipped.
“But, by working and living here, this place too has become like my own.”
Children rushed to see the ladle found by Tikaram. One child almost fell on the pit.
“Hey Maila boy, go away,” he cautioned. “You might fall otherwise.”
When we commented how well he had known the village children to call them by their home names in less than four months, he laughed for a while.
“After all, we Nepalis are the same wherever we go,” he said. “As we lived, we knew each other and felt like our own village.”
Tikaram now has a plan to go to Dang after construction of two to four more houses. So far, he has already provided his labor to make rebuild more than ten houses in Pipaldanda and nearby Gairhigaon and a little below Saunepani areas.
“I have got 10 Katthas (3,380 sq meters) of land in the village,” he said. “I will go back to the village for the rice planting season.”
It is not only in Sindhupalchowk where new-comers are seen. The same day we went to Kavre district where we found a lot of workers from India and the Madhes. In Balthali village of Kavre, so many Bhojpuri speaking people have come that the migrant workers together have opened a sweet shop.
There is a grand Madesh-style hotel selling Samosa, Chat, Lagalatti, among others, giving a Madhesi flavor, at a place where others hadn’t opened even a tea shop. Even the locals were enjoying in the hotel where the Madhesi workers were eating.
“There wasn’t even a single eatery here,” said Abdul Miya (the owner), a migrant worker who came from Jagarnathpur in Parsa district two years ago. “We opened the hotel after we agreed to have a shop serving our taste.”
He now plans to operate a lodge after adding another storey on the same house.
We also had Yuba Raj Bhusal, Chief Executive Officer of the NRA, in our tour to Balthali. After observing the under-construction village, journalists and Bhusal with other officers interacted at the sweet shop set up by the Muslim friend from Parsa.
In the interaction, NRA’s chief for Kavre district Dhruva Gaida said 8,000 houses had been constructed and 28,000 are under construction out of the 66,000 earthquake-affected with whom the agreement had been signed.
“What about the remaining 30,000,” CEO Bhusal asked the journalists.
“Like in other districts, construction work has not progressed well in our district too due to lack of workers,” came the reply.
“At present, workers from Madhes and Bihar are helping the construction in many places,” said CEO Bhusal turning towards us, “I met people from Bihar even in remote villages like Baghuwa.”
He said, he found similar scenario in remote villages of Nuwakot too.
There is a lack of workers in Nepal at present. That is the reason, people from various areas are being attracted to these damaged hilly villages, Bhusal said.
Even now, about 1,500 Nepalis are going to the Gulf or Malaysia every day. Why aren’t they encouraged to work in reconstruction within the country?
CEO Bhusal replied, “That’s because reconstruction does not provide long-term employment opportunity.”
“On one hand, our people have aspirations to fly abroad on airplanes,” he said. “On the other, this is only a temporary employment opportunity.”
Otherwise, Nepalis flying abroad to earn Rs. 20,000 a month would have an opportunity to earn better back home now.
According to Bhusal, lack of skilled manpower is another reason. But there are enough skilled builders in Bihar and Madhes.
“We had made an open call to provide training to 54,000 young people,” he said. “Only 27,000 applied.”
A daily allowance of Rs. 950 is given in the training. Even today, if enough Nepali people show interest in taking the training, Bhusal says he is ready to provide it. But for this they have to have basic masonry-training. They will be mainly provided training for making earthquake resistant houses.
According to Bhusal, there is a nationwide shortage of skilled workers.
“Even in the capital, workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa have come for skilled works like wiring and plumbing,” he says. “People from the same area have come at this time, too.”
Bhusal informed that only about 1,000 to 1,200 skilled workers are being produced in Nepal according to the statistics provided by the Department of Small and Cottage Industries. To meet the present demand, 100,000 workers should have been produced every year.
“On one hand, we don’t have skilled manpower,” he said. “On the other, as the young workforce is attracted to foreign employment, we don’t have an option to bring people from outside.”