Blog 86. A message from Kathmandu

The story below is an email from an American anthropology professor who is doing aid work in Nepal.  It illustrates what happens when critical reasoning isn’t applied in social or governmental services.  For those of us who thought of Nepal as an impoverished but bucolic place populated by kind, reverent people, this report is a new view.  Might the developing disparity of wealth and power in the U.S. eventually bring a similar social situation here?

The author gave permission to publish part of this private letter.  I changed Nepalese personal names to the American pseudonyms of Smith, Jones and Taylor, because those persons weren’t asked to approve this publication.  Altered material is in [brackets], deleted material is indicated by ellipsis … .  It’s a long story, but you’ll get the picture, however far you read.

Being in Nepal right now is like one of those terrible childhood jokes:
·  Unfortunately, most of Nepal has been impoverished to fill the coffers of its conquering elite since its inception 250 years ago.
·  Fortunately, in 1950, in the wake of Indian independence, Nepalese sub-elites wrenched a deal to spread the wealth at least to them and establish a modest form of parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy.
·  Unfortunately, the crown prince didn’t like this, so when he became king, he reclaimed absolute, divine right, military rule.
·  Fortunately, some of the cats had already been let out of the bag and Nepal was now “open” to international diplomacy and development.
·  Unfortunately, this led to serious double-speak: all grabs for wealth and power were just as patrimonial, non-inclusive and grounded in military/police threat, but now in the name of “development”; foreign governments and donors quietly turned a blind eye.
·  Fortunately, the “patient” and “tolerant” Nepalese people were, in 1990, neither and they demanded change.
·  Unfortunately, the “democracy” that was established turned out not to be robust enough to allow the so-called Maoist branch of the Communist Party to stand in the elections so its leaders began what was to become a 10-year civil war.
·  Fortunately, the 1000’s of Nepalese who were working abroad sent significant resources to their (mostly) village families and there were no government officials in the countryside anymore so real development began to happen: roads were built everywhere; children were sent to boarding schools; family size decreased; in fact, by all the measures of well-being, life in the villages improved more than at any time in history.
·  Unfortunately, the dysfunction at the center was profound: the political party leadership did little more than import consumer goods; and the royal family imploded in an insider bloodbath the explanation for which still has as many versions as there are people in the country.
·  Fortunately (or so many thought), the only royal pretender left standing reclaimed absolute, divine right, military control in 2002; the Nepalese people had seen this before—some were even nostalgic for it.
·  Unfortunately, chaos continued to reign in Kathmandu; conflict, in the countryside.
·  Fortunately, this culminates in the largest popular protests Nepal has ever seen in April 2006, which forces the king to reinstate parliament.
· Unfortunately, there is still a civil war, now raging at levels greatly fanned by the king’s 18th century understanding of military-girded governance.
·  Fortunately, the leaders of the legal parties and the leaders of the outlawed party share so many interests that they in November 2006, with the help of others also very much like them in India, sign a peace agreement, depose the king, agree to establish an interim joint government and hold elections. The elections in 2008 are a great success—and a great surprise because the legal-again Maoists win the direct elections.
·  Unfortunately, after the full tally of the proportional representation part of the elections is in, no one party holds anything close to a majority, so years of party politicking ensue and ultimately derail the constitution-writing process.
·  There is no fortunately. Elections produce a less daring assembly; party corruption is rampant; no constitution is written; and in April 2015 a violent earthquake rattles Kathmandu and destroys a 100+ mile swath from Gorkha to Solukhumbu north of the city.
·  Unfortunately, the same inequities produced by elite capture at the center that plagued the country before the earthquake also captured most of the relief sent to Nepal.
·  Fortunately, unfortunately (it’s getting a little confusing here on the ground): foreign-based donations (from both the expatriate Nepalese community and the international community) have been pouring in; the government created, but failed to authorize to begin to operate, a National Reconstruction Agency; instead, it’s response was to ram through an unpopular version of a constitution which precipitated considerable violence in the Tarai, which produced a blockade on all transport into Nepal, which the Indian government denies authorizing and the India press is not covering, but which is causing even more suffering here—there is no fuel and no imported commodities, which is coming to mean no water, no cooking gas, and nothing to cook. Not an auspicious beginning for the holiday season.

It turns out that our proverb “two steps forward, one step back” (or, for you hard core realists out there, “one step forward, two steps backward”) can be translated directly into Nepali. And it is heartbreaking. Because, of course, it is always the “little people” who suffer the most: the taxi driver who has to make payments on his car loan when he can’t get gas; the college student who misses classes; the office worker who has to walk 2-3 hours to the job each way; the independent restauranteur who cannot get cooking gas and has to close; the vegetable peddler whose vegetables don’t arrive in the market. Some aspects are turning critical: hospitals are running out of medicines; even ambulances don’t have fuel; police are harassing taxis for rides in the name of controlling gouging. And, oh, my! the opportunities for gouging: the only thing holding them in check is that, since no one knows when supplies will start coming again, people are starting to hoard rather than sell at inflated prices.

The implications for my little project to help train construction workers on Phyukhri Ridge have been profound. The process of getting the project approved went very quickly and smoothly, in large part due to [a local official and business person], and the reach of our combined networks in and out of government. The only not-so-small glitch was/is that, because it is less than a NRs 10M project, it has to be approved at the district level: the central Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (of the Ministry of Urban Development, which is overseeing reconstruction) very helpfully provided the format needed to propose a project as well as wrote the text for the memorandum of understanding, but I had to go to Trisuli to get it signed; fortunately, [Jones] had to go to a meeting in Trisuli, was able to get fuel, and took me; unfortunately, the necessary hakim sahib wasn’t there; fortunately, his unauthorized-to-act deputy agreed to take custody of my papers, get them signed, and return them; unfortunately, (is this starting to sound familiar?) that hasn’t happened yet. I will call the folks at the DUDBC and confirm that I can begin, in anticipation of the paperwork; …

So I’ve been using the interim to search for good training materials and linkages with others doing similar work. Until yesterday, that quest hadn’t been very fruitful. A veritable alphabet soup of offices and organizations claim to be offering mason, carpenter and/or iron-bending training. Until yesterday, all I found were (1) oriented toward urban reinforced concrete pillar construction and (2) [training sessions] at least 3 months long (one was “working on” a month-long training). Most were still awaiting DUDBC approval for their curricula and could not share them. It was very discouraging.

I feel that the entire model is wrong for rural subsistence communities. The Nepal Government through the Ministry of Urban Planning and its DUCBC is focused on regulating improved construction. The process that they are proposing is:
·  Homeowners must demonstrate that they are eligible for subsidies and/or loans by
o obtaining an Earthquake Victim ID Card (at least one trip to the relevant district office) and
o the interrelated opening of a bank account (another trip),
o then they must select one of the approved house designs from the DUDBC catalogue (to be released “after Dasain”) and sign an agreement to build that one (even though there are serious issues about the appropriateness of those designs for rural farmers),
o after which 200,000 NRs (“two lakh”) is to be deposited into their bank account,
o from which 25% (or so) will be advanced to allow them to build the foundation, according to DUDBC Building Code standards (here, there are still some unanswered questions for those people who will be building with mud-bonded brick or stone, since there are no specific codes for such buildings, just “rules of thumb”)
o after the foundation is finished, homeowners are supposed to call in an engineer to approve the quality of the work (most of you will recognize this model from American and other developed country’s practices)
o and there is supposed to be an engineer deputed to every VDC with over 1000 households (and a sub-engineer to those with less)—since there are 14 officially affected districts and 62 VDCs in Nuwakot alone, that’s a lot of engineers to be convinced to go work in the villages.
o When the foundation is approved, another 25% is to be released for construction of the walls,
o Then another check by the engineer and
o Another 25% for the roof and
o Another check and
o The final 25% released upon the code-certified completion of the entire structure.

There are some significant problems with this model beginning with the number of engineers and the number (and potentially adversarial nature) of interactions between regulating agencies and the homeowner. That’s a lot of trips to offices and lots of opportunities for construction to be certified irregularly. Since plans to provide training for safer construction are moving on a 5-year plan, most rural homes will be rebuilt without knowledge of the engineers’ code-based expectations. Moreover, the government only currently has enough money to give 120,000 eligible homeowners the 200,000 NRs; there are some 500,000 homes already certified as completely destroyed and 125,000 as partially so. And this is all with the knowledge that it will cost the average farmer somewhere between 1.5-3,000,000 NRs to rebuild. From the villagers’ point of view, 200,000 is too little, too late and too much work—but what choice do they have? I’m trying as much as possible to stick to my knowledge transfer model, whereby homeowners learn practical ways in which to earthquake-ready their homes, and stay away from (although, of course, ultimately within) the prescriptive, professionalized, regulatory model of the government. Not that it’s wrong; mostly, that it’s unrealistic in the short run—even if there are enough earthquake-savvy engineers around, without knowledge in the hands of those who will be doing the actual building, things will not get done right anyway.

With time passing rapidly by, and me unable to get around Kathmandu very well, let alone get up to the villages, I was getting really anxious. Until yesterday. Finally, the days and days of meetings and gathering information netted one [Smith]. [Smith] is the executive director of the School of Shelter and Environment, which was started around 1993. He collaborated to design a 5-day training, with manual, with [Taylor]—an extremely competent engineer whose workshop on earthquake reconstruction for a team of young … DP engineers really made on-the-ground sense to me. This training uses only locally available materials to make earthquake-resistant structures. The content looks just right and [Smith], with his ponytail and energy, seems the most likely trainer I’ve seen.

So this is where my little project stands now: I will leave for the 6 VDCs (‘townships’) on Phyukhri Ridge as soon as I can to run my series of discussions/focus groups. I have three objectives for those meetings:
1. To share information about the government’s plans for the 200,000 NRs subsidies;
2. To encourage villagers to form 30-40 household “Earthquake Reconstruction Committees” and
3. To spread basic information about earthquake-resistant housing and the training, including identifying 5 construction workers from each of the VDCs to take part in the training.
[Smith] is preparing a concept note to run his 5-day training (which I hope fervently will be within my budget!) and I am pushing hard to have him do it before his next scheduled one on November 15 so that I can be there for it.
I’m off now to get some handouts and posters printed about points (1) and (3) above … .
When last heard from the author expressed concern that it might be difficult to depart from Kathmandu due to the shortage of aviation fuel.
Finally, in the signature portion of the author’s emails, there is this: