The polarising use of this term further implies that people were well-informed regarding beneficiary guidelines and reconstruction criteria, and made conscious decisions to be deceptive.
The following article is authored by members of an international collaborative research partnership based at Social Science Baha in Nepal and the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Recent reports by Transparency International-Nepal and articles have characterised many beneficiaries of the Nepal government’s grants for post-earthquake housing reconstruction as ‘fake victims’. Those who have accepted the first tranche of funding but ‘failed’ to begin reconstruction, or even worse, have built one-roomed houses not suitable for family life, are portrayed as wilfully corrupt manipulators of resources entrusted to them by a benevolent state.
Our collaborative ethnographic research conducted in three earthquake-affected districts (Bhaktapur, Dhading and Sindhupalchok) over the last year beginning in March 2017 tells a different story. Our qualitative data overwhelmingly shows that earthquake-affected citizens have encountered multiple obstacles in accessing and deploying reconstruction grants. They have struggled to understand the requirements for receiving grants and loans; once understood, have faced difficulties in meeting those requirements, usually due to challenges in securing citizenship or land tenure documentation; then suffered from lack of sufficient resources to build homes that suit their socio-cultural needs while also complying with new building codes; and experienced various forms of political pressure due to extremely tight deadlines. These have prevented families from engaging in long-term economic planning that might have enabled complementary use of the grants and other forms of personal income and labour resources.
For all of these reasons, we would like to point out the fallacy inherent in the term ‘fake victims’ as defined by the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) and other organisations. We share their concerns with the slow pace of reconstruction and the proliferation of unsuitable houses across the earthquake-affected zone. However, our research suggests that it is a mistake to blame these results primarily on the beneficiaries, rather than on miscommunication and mismanagement on the part of implementation agencies.
Everyone who experienced the 2015 earthquakes, anywhere in Nepal, has a right to identify as earthquake-affected (we prefer this term to ‘victim’). Those who lost livestock and property—let alone family members—have a further claim to belong in this category. To suggest that anyone who experienced these devastating losses is a ‘fake victim’ is highly insensitive, regardless of how they subsequently decided to pursue reconstructing or retrofitting their home.
The polarising use of this term further implies that people were well-informed regarding beneficiary guidelines and reconstruction criteria, and made conscious decisions to be deceptive. To the contrary, our research demonstrates that there was a widespread lack of understanding. A majority of interviewees could not even identify what the NRA was. Likewise, we found numerous individuals who could not distinguish between ‘relief cash’ they received in 2015 (NRs. 10,000 for winterisation relief and NRs. 15,000 for temporary shelters) and the subsequent reconstruction grant.
There were several opportunities to correct these misconceptions and update beneficiary lists through the three government assessments: first by VDC officials, then by District Disaster Relief Committees (DDRC) in 2015, and finally in the NRA-led Central Bureau of Statistics survey of 2016. However, each of these assessments had structural deficiencies which made it difficult to ascertain the total number of legitimate beneficiaries. According to NRA portal updates till February 11th, 2019, the NRA continues to re-survey through grievance redressal mechanisms, causing the number of beneficiaries to fluctuate from 646,561 households, as indicated in the February 2017 CBS Survey, to 767,722 households in the 14 most-affected districts, with 105,390 further households identified in other less affected districts . The discrepancies between these numbers remain controversial and indicate limitations in the assessment methodology: the NRA’s own faulty assessments initially enlisted many households that they now term ‘fake’.
We also need to consider the mediating roles that political and civil society leaders play in such assessments. In a grant-distributing bank in Dhading, employees told us that political leaders were active in disseminating information about accessing housing grants as part of their political agenda during local elections. In Sindhupalchowk, NRA field engineers told us how multiple members of the same household were able to access grants due to their political linkages. In both sites, NRA field engineers were often said to be pressured by political leaders to recommend their constituents’ houses for grants. Are such behaviors evidence of corruption, or rather crucial means of demonstrating accountability to constituents within new formations of local governance?
Our research did reveal cases where members of the same household claimed to be separate households in order to access additional grants. Such additional households might be designated as ‘ineligible’, rather than ‘fake’. In many cases, we were told that this was done because the 3 lakh allocation per household was not adequate to build a home large enough for a joint family. Therefore, families sought to maximise resources, thinking that they could combine grants to build a larger home, but learning later that each grant recipient was required to build an independent structure. This is one of the leading causes of the one-room house trend, which may have been avoided through better communication and flexibility in grant allocation.
In rural areas of Dhading and Sindhupalchowk, many people had already repaired old homes with their own resources before becoming aware of the reconstruction program. They were therefore in no immediate need of grants. Perhaps they should have asked to be removed from the beneficiary list; However, many people told us that they were fearful of doing so after hearing rumours that failing to participate in the reconstruction program might lead to revocation of land documents, or even citizenship. Further, in many cases they were under pressure from government and NGO representatives to subscribe, so that the latter could report on the successful implementation of their programs.
In all sites, many residents were away as labour migrants elsewhere. This has led to a severe labour shortage, which alongside soaring prices of construction materials and wages has made reconstruction difficult for even well-resourced households. In Bhaktapur, many people did not have money but had land assets to sell. Those who did not want to sell at cheaper rates to ‘dalaal’ (real estate contractors) were waiting to get a better price for their land. Some had also hoped to access the subsidised loans of NRs. 15,00,000 and 25,00,000 at 2 percent interest promised by the government, but the loans for urban reconstruction were abruptly scrapped due to banks’ reluctance to provide loans. For such reasons, homeowners in all our sites would have preferred to delay reconstruction till market prices stabilised, labour became available, and loans were accessible. However, the NRA deadlines have constantly forced households to act quickly (previously, mid-July, 2018; now, the latest deadline for the first tranche being mid-July, 2019). We commend the NRA’s decision to remove deadlines for the second and third tranche, which will help to address some of these hardships.
Finally, the NRA has had limited ability to assess ongoing geohazards and provide relocation assistance to affected households. We worked with several families who were aware that their area was at risk of landslides or floods, yet they had not been provided with support to relocate, or given an extension on the deadlines to reconstruct their homes. Such households were in a bind: they could use funds to build as per the NRA guidelines in a location that they knew was unsafe and would likely have to relocate from before long; or they could delay the start of reconstruction and risk identification as ‘fake victims’.
No earthquake-affected individual or family should be faced with such conundrums. In order to realise the full promise of the ‘owner-driven’ reconstruction model that the government and its supporters chose to implement, the experiences of owners themselves must be better understood. The NRA’s newly released ‘Revisions to the Grant Disbursement Procedures for Private Houses Destroyed by the Earthquake (Second Amendment), 2075, as per the decision of the Council of Ministers dated February 4, 2019’, takes important steps in this direction by adjusting procedures to account for many of the challenges we have described. However, these decisions made nearly four years after the earthquake, may be too little too late, since the majority of houses have already been rebuilt or at least laid the foundation for one-room houses. We can only hope that these revisions will be supported by a well-conceived outreach strategy that gives homeowners the knowledge they need to make the best decisions, and takes their remaining concerns seriously.
The authors, Bina Limbu, Jeevan Baniya, Manoj Suji and Sara Shneiderman, are members of an international collaborative research partnership, ‘Expertise, Labour, and Mobility in Nepal’s Post-Conflict, Post-Earthquake Reconstruction: Construction, Finance, and Law as Domains of Social Transformation’. More information about the project is available at https://elmnr.arts.ubc.ca/.