KUMPUR, DHADING DISTRICT, NEPAL — Two and a half years ago, Gammaya Gurung’s modest home was destroyed in a major earthquake.
The government promised money to those who lost their homes, so they could rebuild. Gurung is illiterate, but she managed to apply for the grant. Her application was denied. She’s still living in a haphazard shack with her two young daughters.
Man Kumari Shrestha, who also lost her home, was approved for the grant, but she only got the first of three payments, and she can’t finish her new home. She’s still living in a temporary shelter.
Jagat Gurung received a small grant payment from the government, but he is tired of waiting for more money. He took out a private loan for what amounts to a fortune in rural Nepal, hoping to pay it back with the rest of the government grant. Today, Gurung, who is not related to Gammaya Gurung, worries he’ll lose the home he just built.
Like him, many others have gone deep into debt borrowing money to build homes that can keep their families safe if there’s another earthquake. They say they hoped the grant would help them repay those debts, but they’re still waiting for the grant money, and now they’re worried that they’ll lose their new homes when their lenders come to collect.
These people’s lives were upended on April 25, 2015. That’s when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shredded the ground, killing more than 9,000 people, injuring some 22,000 more and destroying or damaging as many as 800,000 homes. Just as people tried to gain a foothold, the shaking started again. Aftershocks went on for weeks, and a second, smaller quake came in early May.
For a time – just an instant, really – the whole world came to help. The airport in Kathmandu was clogged with doctors, aid workers and do-gooders of all stripes. Donations came in from around the world via text messages.
The promise of aid, to many Nepalese, seemed a natural thing. This is a place where generosity and mutual assistance are core values. Holy men build long, full lives on donations. Medical care is deeply subsidized. Most people have little cash, so basic needs are met in kind. How else would they live?
To many here, however, it seemed that all that help stopped before the dust from the quake had even settled.
And for many of the people who remain, it’s as though the ground is still shaking.
Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
Tens of thousands of people who applied for reconstruction grants were denied, some because they can’t prove ownership of their homes. But in Nepal, land ownership is often structured communally. In the agricultural areas that make up most of the country, traditional land-tenure systems have been in place for centuries; elsewhere, extended families might share land ownership, or the land-tenure system might be in place. In some cases, land was registered under a single name, but houses were built and shared by many people. In other cases, the state technically owned the land but had allowed families to work it and live on it for generations.
The reconstruction grant is designed to come in three tranches: 50,000 Nepalese rupees (roughly $500), 150,000 rupees (just under $1,500) and 100,000 rupees (about $1,000). But less than 1 percent of approved grant recipients have received the full 300,000 rupees.
To get the money, an applicant needs a bank account – something that four out of every 10 Nepalese adults don’t have. Many live hours from a bank or don’t have the identity documents they’d need to open an account. Those who can open accounts often don’t, because even small transaction fees represent too large a chunk of their earnings.
How Grant Money Is Released
Nepal’s post-earthquake reconstruction effort has centered on government grants promised to almost all landowners who lost their home either in the 7.8-magnitude temblor on April 25, 2015 or in the aftershocks during the following weeks.
To receive the grant, applicants who can prove that they are landowners and that their home was destroyed in the quake apply for the grant. Applicants who are approved must create a bank account to receive the money and then use the first 50,000-rupee (about $500) installment to build an earthquake-resistant foundation. The second installment is for 150,000 rupees (about $1,500), and the third installment is for 100,000-300,000 rupees (about $1,000-$3,000) in total. A government engineer must sign off on the construction work at each phase, before the next installment is released.
Source: National Reconstruction Authority, Nepal
Each grant installment comes with requirements. The first payment must be used to build a foundation with earthquake-resistant materials and building techniques. A government engineer has to inspect the home and approve the homeowner for the next grant installment.
But the majority of Nepalese whose homes were destroyed say the first grant amount isn’t nearly enough to build a foundation, according to research by multiple organizations. Dormant construction sites, launched in the excitement of the post-earthquake rebirth, litter the countryside. Many families who received the first grant payment never even tried to use the money to rebuild.
Even those who have done work on their own dime say local government officials tell them that there’s no grant money available.
Then there’s the labor shortage. More than 2 million Nepalese have permits to work abroad, many of them young men who could otherwise lead the rebuilding effort. Coming home would mean losing their jobs and all the fees they paid to go abroad.
The labor shortage is a problem for the government, too. There are so few government engineers that even people who have completed their foundations say they can’t get anyone to come inspect them.
Nearly three-quarters of the people who lost their homes in the earthquake are still living in tents or temporary shelters, waiting for the shaking to finally end.
Counting the number of homes that were damaged or destroyed in rural Nepal in the earthquake proved a difficult task.
It was in the early days after the quake that the national government directed local, village-development committees – local government bodies – to collect information on the damage. The first round of assessments led to complaints and protests about how the investigation was conducted. A second round had the same results.
A third assessment was conducted in early 2016 by the Central Bureau of Statistics. It wasn’t until then that officials even had firm data on which to base their rebuilding plans.
It was a time of trial and error, says Bhishma Kumar Bhusal, the deputy spokesman at the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), the agency charged with managing the rebuilding effort. Mistakes were made, he says, and sometimes politics got in the way of real work. But he deflects blunt criticism with soft shrugs and a vague smile.
“This is our first experience with disaster,” he says. “The country had not faced this kind of mega-disaster in the last 90 years.”
Bhusal takes pride in being different from the average Nepalese government worker. In a country continually looted by corrupt leaders, Bhusal was in 2016 named a finalist in a contest called Integrity Idol, run by Accountability Lab, a U.S.-based anti-corruption agency.
He’s also an amateur songwriter. He penned a song championing rebuilding efforts and even appeared in the song’s Bollywood-style music video, waving the Nepalese flag and singing “Let’s participate in reconstruction,” as an attractive, young couple urges teamwork in their neighborhood and finds happiness at a construction site.
However, all the evidence shows that Bhusal’s romantic ideal is far from reality for many Nepalese.
What’s left of Gammaya Gurung’s house sits at the end of a two-hour hike along terraced cropland from the main road.
The village of Kumpur, home to about 3,000 people, has been isolated for generations. The Trishuli River, a major waterway favored by tourists for whitewater rafting and scenic gorges, rushes between Kumpur and the main road. It wasn’t until 2016 that a bridge was built to span the river. Before then, Kumpur residents used a 500-foot, rope-and-pulley system to get across, standing two or three at a time in a small, metal trolley and grasping the rope to lug themselves across the river flowing nearly a dozen stories below.
The bridge has made life much easier for the people of Kumpur, but there’s still no car-worthy road connecting them to the rest of the country. Anything they move to or from their village is lugged by hand or on the backs of pack animals.
Grant Money in Limbo
Few who have applied for government assistance have received the money to rebuild their homes. Less than 1 percent of the people approved for the grant have received all of the money.
- Grant applicants: 996,162
- Applicants approved: 765,618
- Signed formal grant agreements: 637,381
- Received only first installment: 606,934
- Received first and second installments: 71,249
- Received all three grant installments: 5,432
Source: National Reconstruction Authority, Nepal (data as of September 2017)
The homes, too, are traditional. Until the earthquake, Gurung lived with her daughters, now 4 and 7 years old, on the second level of a brick abode, fashioned around wooden posts. Like many in rural Nepal, the ground floor was home to a few water buffaloes, prized by many farming families for their milk, which families drink, sell or use to make yogurt.
Gurung and her girls were outside when the earthquake happened. The house crumbled. The water buffaloes were crushed.
Already living hand-to-mouth, Gurung had nothing to fall back on. Her husband works as a day laborer in Malaysia and sends home about $200 every month, but that stretches just enough to cover basic living expenses and the girls’ school fees.
Because her husband is gone, Gurung can’t prove that she’s married – the couple never had a formal marriage certificate made – and she can’t convince local government officials that she’s a homeowner and eligible for a reconstruction grant. Gurung doesn’t even have any identity documents to show that she’s a Nepalese citizen.
Like most Nepalese who go abroad to work, Gurung’s husband can’t come home without forfeiting his job and likely also forfeiting the fees he paid to get to Malaysia.
Gurung, with help from Transparency International’s Nepal branch, formally complained to the NRA about the grant-application process. She was one of about 200,000 people to do so, says Dina Nath Bhattarai, a Transparency International administrative officer.
Bhusal, the NRA deputy spokesman, says all of those complaints have been resolved.
But Gurung says she’s still waiting. More than two years after their home was destroyed, Gurung and her daughters are still living in a temporary shelter they fashioned out of wood and tarpaulin. Their corrugated-metal roof, pockmarked with holes, is topped with stones to keep it from flying off in the wind.
When it rains, the family’s pots and other kitchen supplies float above the floor.
“I hold my daughters in my arms and stay awake the whole night,” Gurung says.
She’s living in an unending nightmare.
“I feel like the earthquake is occurring every day,” she says.
Man Kumari Shrestha’s new home is half-built and she’s out of money. Now, her task is to keep the construction site, which is a 15-minute walk through potato and cauliflower patches from Gurung’s shack, from falling into disrepair. But Shrestha, who has an elderly husband and three of seven children who still rely on her, says it feels like a losing battle. Green, slimy algae climb the partially erected walls. Bits of broken bricks litter the site.
Shrestha received the grant’s 50,000-rupee first installment and used it to kick-start construction. She asked at the local government office for an engineer to come inspect the work and approve the rest of the grant money, but no one has ever come.
Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
Desperate, Shrestha borrowed 700,000 rupees (nearly $7,000) from friends – money she hoped would cover the costs of building the home to the government’s earthquake-resistant standards, with corner reinforcements and other resiliency features. But she soon discovered that those features, which are required in order for her to get the rest of the grant money, make home-building far more expensive than it ordinarily would be.
“It costs more than 100,000 rupees just for transportation of the construction materials,” she says.
The new home is nothing special – just four rooms. But Shrestha says she’ll need as much as 700,000 more rupees to complete it.
Surveys by Transparency International’s Nepal branch found that the vast majority of Nepalese do not believe the grant is enough money to build an earthquake-resistant home of any design. Some families – 16 percent, according to The Asia Foundation – who received the first grant didn’t even try to build a new home but used the money instead to pay off debts or cover basic, daily needs.
Bhusal, the NRA spokesman, says he doesn’t have much patience for people who complain that the grant isn’t sufficient. The government can’t do everything, he says. People must expect to work hard.
But in a nod to the reality that building is expensive, the government made it possible for grant recipients to apply for a 300,000-rupee, no-interest loan to help with construction costs. But banks and financial institutions, hesitant to work with people who had lost everything, often denied those loan applications quickly.
In October, the government changed its policy to allow banks to consider homes under construction as collateral.
Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
That loan wouldn’t have done much to help Shrestha, who’s struggling with debts of more than double the amount she might have secured through a government-backed loan.
“Building the house with the new design from the money provided by the government is just a dream,” Shrestha says.
As she talks, she stirs a pot of rice over an open fire. She’s 55, but she has the lined face of someone much older.
The family has lived in a tent for more than two years.
Nepalese on the Move
More than 2.1 million Nepalese – about 7 percent of the total population of nearly 29 million – were granted permits to work abroad between 2008 and 2017. Another large group of workers who cross overland to India don’t need work permits, so they’re not counted among those 2.1 million. About 450,000 Nepalese were issued labor permits to work abroad in 2014 and 2015 alone, and many of those took jobs lasting multiple years.
Dhading district, where the village of Kumpur is located, is home to a disproportionate number of those migrant workers. Since 2008, almost 40,000 people from the district – about 11 percent of the district’s population – have been issued permits to work abroad.
In many cases, workers are barred from leaving the countries where they work without their employers’ permission or because they need to stay long enough to pay back employment agencies that bought them their flights abroad. Many migrant workers have been away for years, unable to return for a visit even after the earthquake.
Source: International Labor Organization
There are some families who are living in new, earthquake-resistant homes. There aren’t many, but it’s possible to find them, even in isolated villages like Kumpur.
Many of those families are now facing serious financial problems.
Amrita Shrestha’s husband, the formal owner of the family’s land, is working in Saudi Arabia. She pleaded with NRA officials in Dhading Besi, the town that serves as the district headquarters, to approve her as the recipient of a grant in his absence. They said no.
“Instead, they told me that the money would not go anywhere for five years, and I can withdraw the money after my husband is back,” says Amrita Shrestha, who is not directly related to Man Kumari Shrestha.
Desperate for decent housing, she took a 15-day masonry course and convinced the teachers to use her home as the training ground. But she still had to borrow 250,000 rupees (about $2,395) to buy bricks for the house, and she is struggling to pay that loan back.
A year ago, Jagat Gurung, 70, was living in a cramped tent with his son, daughter-in-law and their children. They needed space, warmth and safety, and Gurung scrambled to get it for them.
He received the first grant payment and worked with an engineer to make sure his building plan would meet the government’s standards. But after he laid the foundation exactly to the engineer’s specifications, local government officials told him that there was no more money available. Frustrated, Gurung borrowed 700,000 rupees from friends.
He promised his friends that he’d pay them back as soon as the government grant came through.
The house was finished in April, but the government has not given him anything.
“It seems that the situation may come,” he says, “when the house could get auctioned for failing to repay the loan.”
Kalpana Khanal, GPJ Nepal
Much of the country has moved on since the day of the quake. In the capital Kathmandu, people mince along piles of brick in the city streets. Is it earthquake damage, still lingering years later? Is it construction work, making way for a new water pipeline? No one asks anymore.
In the countryside, tents still flank the paths that wind through rural villages. From above, the blue-and-white tarpaulins look like refugee camps, intended for temporary housing.
But the Nepalese who live in these tents aren’t refugees. They’re home, often mere feet from the places where their families lived for generations, until the quake pushed them into the open air.
The Nepalese government has moved on. There have been four prime ministers since the earthquake, and with each one have come new priorities and fresh strategies. In September 2015, the government approved a new constitution that guarantees equal rights for women and minorities.
The NRA has until mid-2020 to complete all reconstruction work. Any grant money that is going to be distributed to landowners has to be sent out well before then.
The world has moved on, too. There have been wildfires. Hurricanes. More earthquakes.
News of those disasters doesn’t reach rural Nepal. People who live in tents and temporary shelters don’t usually watch television or read the news.
They’re thinking about how to make it through the coming winter.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, contributed reporting.