“The next challenge is the preliminary rehabilitation of the quake-affected people”

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The National Planning Commission (NPC) has prepared a plan for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country following the earthquake. Janardan Baral and Shakuntala Joshi of New Business Age talked to NPC Vice-chairman Prof Dr Govind Raj Pokhrel on various aspects of the plan. Excerpts: 
NPC has prepared a rehabilitation and reconstruction plan following the earthquake. But as per this plan, the real reconstruction is not likely to begin immediately?
We have devised a four-stage plan for post-quake rehabilitation and reconstruction. Under this plan, the earthquake victims will be rehabilitated and reconstruction of settlements, infrastructure, and public buildings will be completed in three years. Rescue and relief, preliminary rehabilitation, rebuilding of infrastructures, and rehabilitation and reconstruction are the four stages of the plan. We have almost completed the rescue and relief stage. Now the next challenge is the preliminary rehabilitation of the quake-affected people. As the monsoon is only a month away, the people who have been rendered homeless by the earthquake need temporary shelters that will protect them from the elements. For this, we have prepared designs for temporary shelters. For the time being, we have printed and sent 1000 such designs to each of the 14 districts most affected by the earthquake. We plan to send 300,000 designs to the affected districts in the future. The temporary houses built as per these designs will last for up to a year. These designs vary. Some houses built on these designs will require a minimum investment while others will require slightly more. The government has announced a relief amount of Rs 200,000 each for the families severely affected by the earthquake. The other stages of the plan will be implemented gradually.
We are going to carry out a post-disaster need assessment (PDNA). After this, we will have concrete data on the damage done by the quake and the actual amount needed for rebuilding and reconstruction. We want to involve all donor agencies interested in helping Nepal in the preparation of the PDNA so that we can produce a single document. In Haiti, there was a lot of confusion in the aftermath of the earthquake as three different PDNA documents were prepared by different stakeholders. We have learnt from this and want to make sure that we do not face a similar situation. We plan to complete the PDNA by mid-June. To assess the damage, we have sent two government officials to each of the 600 VDCs affected. We have also dispatched teams of engineers and geologists to the affected areas to gather information and data required for rebuilding and reconstruction.
Has the NPC done any preliminary assessment of the damage?
Some reports have said that nearly Rs 500 billion will be required for rebuilding and reconstruction. But this is based on the assumption that the damage is equal to 25 percent of the GDP. However, damage assessment in such crises is an ongoing process and it takes some time before we can say anything with any degree of certainty. As per the global practice, the actual cost of reconstruction cannot be known without completing the PDNA. The Rs 200 billion reconstruction fund which the government has announced is based on a preliminary assessment. The size of this fund will be increased as per the need.
You say the rebuilding and reconstruction will be completed in three years. What do you base this on?
The government won’t be rebuilding private houses. The government will provide Rs 200,000 each to the families whose homes have been damaged completely and then they will have to build their homes on their own. To create skilled manpower required for this, the government will provide training. We hope the reconstruction of these houses will be completed in two years. School buildings will have to be rebuilt within two years. However, the complete restoration of religious, cultural and historical monuments will take between three to five years.
The monsoon is just a month away. Can the government make sure that people in the areas which face the risk of landslides will be relocated?
We have dispatched teams of engineers and geologists to the villages. They will find out if these villages can be rehabilitated or if they have to be relocated. Right now, they are being told to build temporary shelters and houses at places which do not face the risks of landslides and floods. We will coordinate with the private sector in order to give them construction materials at before-the-quake prices. The district administration offices concerned will have to monitor the situation.
By reconstruction, does the government mean only the rebuilding of houses and homes in the hardest-hit districts?
No. Schools, hospitals and other health institutions will also be rebuilt. Different countries have expressed commitment to help in the reconstruction process. Discussions are underway to allow them to rebuild, for example, schools in some districts, VDC buildings in others and health institutions in other districts. However, building safe homes for the quake-affected people is the first priority. The state has attached priority to rebuild other damaged infrastructures, too.
Quake-affected areas will be rebuilt, that’s agreed. But why can’t it also be taken as an opportunity to rebuild the entire country?
Rescue work is over now. Relief distribution is still going on. Efforts will now focus on reconstruction. For this, data about the damage is being collected. The people who are collecting data are themselves under risk. Six hundred civil servants have been mobilized to collect the data. Still, data collection is going to take some time. But we are working according to a plan to rebuild the entire country.
You talked of providing Rs 200,000 to each family with damaged houses. Who is going to lead the reconstruction drive? 
The government’s job is to guide the process. The work has to be done by the people themselves. The government will provide a grant which is not a lot and various designs of houses and allow the people to choose from those designs. Carpenters and masons across the country will be provided training to build earthquake-resistant houses. The government will either provide the victims the grant amount in cash or provide them coupons worth the grant amount to buy construction materials. Then people will start rebuilding their houses with the help of the skilled manpower available in their areas. In this way, a number of beautiful houses can be built almost at the same time. It is not possible for the government to call for tenders to build private houses. However, the government will call for bids to rebuild government schools, hospitals, health institutions and VDC buildings.
Can a grant of Rs 200,000 be a solution in the given situation? Instead, wouldn’t cheaper loans be a better option?
This grant is not much. However, most of the poor villagers perhaps had not even invested even Rs 200,000 in their homes. For them, this could be a decent amount. However, those who have capital can invest more to build better homes and houses. The government is going to provide cheaper loans ranging from Rs 1.5 million to Rs 2.5 million. But it will be easier to make the people follow the government standards and rules once they are provided the grant money. People in the areas which are found unsafe after geological studies can also be relocated.
There are all-party mechanisms at the local level to spend the local budget and take other similar decisions. If the same mechanisms are allowed to assess the damage and decide the spending, there is a possibility of the government’s grant being misused. 
Such multi-party mechanisms could be useful in carrying out rescue and relief works. Similarly, they could be effective in monitoring. However, such mechanisms don’t work in construction. No political mechanism will. For construction, we need skilled manpower.
The government has limited resources for reconstruction. So, there are talks of handing over the responsibility of reconstruction to the private sector. But why is the government hesitant to give this responsibility to the private sector?
The villagers could unite and invite the private sector to build their homes. It is the private sector which will be supplying the construction material. They should supply the construction materials at reasonable prices. The government should carry out monitoring to rule out the possibility of black marketing. That is why we are talking about providing coupons worth the grant amount. The government cannot call for bids to ferry construction materials in trucks. However, in areas inaccessible by road, the government should provide construction materials via helicopters. So, the private sector will be playing a major role in reconstruction.
It seems the government is finding it difficult to win the full trust of the development partners. Announcements have been made from different players of the private sector to build homes in the affected villages. In such a situation, how can we establish proper coordination among the government, private sector and development partners? 
The government will work together with the private sector and organizations interested in supporting reconstruction. Ten thousand schools and 1,000 hospitals and health institutions have been damaged. The idea is to request them (development partners and private sector) to rebuild these structures. The state needs these structures more urgently. If the people of any area approach the private sector for reconstruction, then the private sector can go there once the guidelines and criteria are set. However, as the rainy season is about to begin, we should not move forward the reconstruction process other than making temporary arrangements for shelter.
But would it be appropriate for the government to ask anyone to rebuild its own buildings and not those of the people?
The request has been made to rebuild schools where their children study. If any individual or organization with enough resources wants to build private homes, that too is welcome.
As settlements in the hilly areas were scattered, it was difficult for the government to link those areas with roads and electricity. So, hasn’t the earthquake provided an opportunity to select appropriate places and relocate the scattered settlements there?
You are right. The earthquake has brought this opportunity. However, our country is based on agriculture. The livelihoods of our people are linked to the means and resources located near their homes. But the population dependent on agriculture has been receding. Roads are being built and the number of those relocating themselves to roadsides has been increasing. This is the time to develop integrated settlements without affecting the livelihoods of the people to be relocated. We should use this opportunity.
In such times, if a wrong decision is taken or the right decision is delayed, then that would only prolong the current crisis. The people doubt the government’s ability to make the right decision in time. What should be done to clear this doubt?
The crisis management plan that we have forwarded was prepared in consultation with the experts. There are experts of many fields in the government machinery. However, this plan can be modified if there is a need for that in the future. The NPC has devised this plan to its best ability. The press can point out any weaknesses in the implementation of this plan from the government.

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