Wednesday 22 January 2020

Nepal one year on: Why are billions still unspent and so little rebuilt?

We track down the remarkable young man who spoke so eloquently during the cremation of his mother in the days after last year's quake

Raj Kumar Khatri (10) at his aunt's rented apartment in Sanipa, Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren
Raj Kumar Khatri (10) at his aunt's rented apartment in Sanipa, Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren

Jason O'Brien in Kathmandu

Raj Kumar Khatri (10) no longer plays cricket. He last played the game outside a poultry factory in the picturesque suburb of Bhaktapur in Kathmandu around lunchtime on April 25 last.

It was a Saturday and his mother Kamala (35), who was working inside, was due to finish a short time later. Mother and son were going to eat out, before spending some time together that evening.

Raj Kumar Khatri (9) with his Uncle Ganesh Babu Rhaln at the cremation of Raj’s Mother Kamala at the Pashupatinath Temple. Photo: Mark Condren
Raj Kumar Khatri (9) with his Uncle Ganesh Babu Rhaln at the cremation of Raj’s Mother Kamala at the Pashupatinath Temple. Photo: Mark Condren
HEARTBREAK: Raj Kumar Khatri (9) with his uncle, Ganesh Babu Rhian. Photo: Mark Condren

With Raj's father having left years earlier, it was usually just the two of them on weekends. They were both fine with that.

"I miss her," he says simply. "I know she's still around. I know she's still around every day. I miss her every day."

The five-storey concrete building that housed the poultry factory fell quickly. Kamala was working on the second floor and had little chance. Her only boy, of course, tried to get to her.

"He was pulling at bricks shouting 'Mum, mum' when a policeman found him and brought him to the station," his uncle Ganesh Babu Rhian says. "Eventually they brought him here."

Raj Kumar Khatri (10) at his aunt's rented apartment in Sanipa, Kathmandu.
Photo: Mark Condren
Raj Kumar Khatri (10) at his aunt's rented apartment in Sanipa, Kathmandu. Photo: Mark Condren

'Here' is a tiny one-room apartment in Sanipa in Kathmandu, where his aunt lives with her family.

Read more: Special investigation: One year on, how ruthless child traffickers exploited Nepal's earthquake

It was here that Raj heard definitively, five days after the quake, that his mother was dead - when a Pakistani search-and-rescue team using specialised equipment recovered her body and that of a colleague from the building.

It was here that he planned her cremation, later displaying incredible dignity amid the fires at Pashupatinath Temple, where he told the Sunday Independent in perfect English: "I am upset, but if I cry it is of no use to her or to me, is it? This is life and this is death".

Today, his uncle admits that stoicism was largely down to the toughest of tough loves.

"It was a hard time for anyone, especially a nine-year-old, but we tried to help him to be strong," Ganesh says.

"We said, 'If you cry, God will not give her as much attention. If you don't cry, God will take care of her.'"

So Raj didn't cry that day, getting through it because he had little choice.

His resilience was mirrored across Nepal in the days and weeks around the quake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale - and a second two weeks later at 7.3 - which killed almost 9,000 people and left a staggering one million people homeless.

But Raj cries today, looking at a picture of his mother, remembering the life and dreams that he has lost.

The resilience of the nation as a whole has largely been eroded by fatigue and anger as, one full year on, the Himalayan nation struggles to get any reconstruction under way and hundreds of thousands face into another monsoon season under tarpaulin.

It wasn't meant to be this way.

Despite the incredibly difficult terrain and the remoteness of many of the villages worst affected by the quake, which had its epicentre in Gorkha, about 65km east of Kathmandu, emergency relief reached most people within seven days, largely through international non-governmental organisations, including Goal, Trocaire and Plan Ireland.

The initial humanitarian crisis under control, thoughts quickly turned towards rebuilding and getting people out of temporary accommodation.

Damage from the quakes was estimated at approximately $7bn (€6.25bn). By June, some $4.1bn had been pledged by international donors in assistance for the desperately poor country.

And then came a man-made disaster.

The Nepali government looked to fast-track a controversial new constitution during the summer, claiming that this would help clear the way for reconstruction. The opposite happened.

Ethnic Madhesis - a group with close cultural ties to India - argued that the constitution further marginalised them and began an unofficial blockade at the Indian border that lasted four months and precipitated a debilitating fuel crisis in Nepal.

Reconstruction was derailed amid political mudslinging, with Nepal blaming India for stoking the protests. Close to a million people spent a bitter winter in temporary accommodation. Now there are fears that the full $4.1bn in pledges will never materialise.

"The blockade had a major impact on the relief effort," Goal area manager Stephen Jenkinson says.

"Nepal is dependent on India for fuel and the majority of the materials needed for the country to recover, so it was a big setback.

"The reality is that the donors need to have confidence that funds will be distributed in a proper and timely manner and due to a number of factors this hasn't been the case to date. Further delays could mean they begin to look elsewhere."

Due to the earthquake, Nepal is estimated to have lost approximately $7bn - or close to one-third of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

That's an economic headline statistic. The reality breaks down as 750,000 houses destroyed and 7,000 schools lost. In a country where one in three were already struggling to eke out a living on just €1 a day, another 700,000 have been pushed into extreme poverty. There is no welfare system for support.

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The small village of Dandaguan in the foothills of the Langtang mountains in Rasuwa, about 80km north east of Kathmandu, was levelled in the earthquake.

More than 20 people - men, women and a number of small children - died.

Fearful of landslides and mudslides, the surviving families of Dandaguan moved 15km downstream and set up a temporary camp at Bogetar, and waited. They are at their temporary camp still. They continue to wait.

"We had some help at the start from the government ($150 in emergency funds) but since then we have received nothing, and we have heard nothing," says Maugu Tamang (45), whose one-room galvanised hut is currently home to 10 family members across three generations.

The government has promised to provide grants of $2,000 to every family that needs to build a new house. That is a lot of money for families like those from Dandaguan, largely subsistence farmers now struggling to access their land.

"The rain will start again (in May) and it was not easy doing winter here last year. What are they waiting for?" Mrs Tamang asks.

Unfortunately, the political wrangling hasn't been restricted to the blockade.

The National Reconstruction Authority - the conduit for that $4.1bn in foreign aid - was established last June, but only began work in January as it failed to secure a legal status for months.

Of the $4.1bn pledged, about $1bn has been committed. The rest - in theory - is sitting in donors' bank accounts without formal agreements having been signed to get it to Nepal. Irish Aid allocated just over €2m in funding to Nepal last year and will provide approximately €338,000 this year.

The NRA finally started distributing the first rebuilding funds in- mid-March in Dolakha district, 150km east of Kathmandu. It's unclear when it will reach the Bogetar camp and there isn't much basis for optimism.

"The reconstruction work is not going to end even in decades at this pace," the country's prime minister KP Sharma Oli told the 'Kathmandu Post' last month.

"We will reach a place where the reconstruction would be futile. Because everything will be gone by the time we finish our work. People will die."

Of course, so many have already died.

Back in Kathmandu, Raj Kumar Khatri is preparing to mark the anniversary of his mother's death.

"I will do a small worship , which may be something like a fast," he says.

Longer term, he is concentrating on his studies.

Read more: A boy left without a mother: 'If I cry for her it is no use. This is life, and this is death'

"We changed his secondary school because where his mother worked was near his previous school, so it didn't make sense psychologically to keep sending him there," his uncle says. "His grades have really improved," he adds, pointing to a report with a series of 90pc-plus scores.

Raj, who says he wants to be a computer scientist, smiles shyly: "I like improving, getting better results."

Many of his fellow Nepali are desperately hoping for a similar attitude from their government.

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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