“Earthquake Was A Kind Of Blessing In Disguise” Deepak Raj Sapota

As Nepal is commemorating the first anniversary of the great earthquake, DEEPAK RAJ SAPKOTA, country director of Karuna Foundation, which has been working for the protection of children and differently-able people, spoke with NEW SPOTLIGHT on various

April 21, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.9 No 19, April 22,2016 (Baisakh 10,2073)

How is the Karuna Foundation working in the earthquake-affected areas?

After the earthquake, we reached out to 4923 children and 1000 adults, who were differently-able, in 14 earthquake-affected districts. Many differently-able people were living in harsh conditions. If the earthquake had not been there, Karuna Foundation would not have reached them. Some of them are extraordinarily talented persons despite intellectual disability. One is just 14 years.

How is working in the earthquake-affected areas like?

In an ironical way, the earthquake was a great opportunity for Karuna Foundation. We reached to the remote parts to help people with severe disability. We found many girls with intellectual disability suffering from various kinds of discrimination and sexual abuse. We released some girls locked inside sheds along with goats. A 15-year girl with intellectual disability was locked in the cow shed for almost five years near Kathmandu. She was eating grass with the goats when we rescued her. We do have a photograph. She was in a very fragile situation when we rescued her and was suffering from  malnutrition. We found a large  number of such people. The way Karuna reached to the people like the 15-year old is a great achievement.

How have you taken these encounters?

These encounters are blessings for us. Serving these people and rescuing them from such a severe condition is a matter of satisfaction for all of us. We had never imagined that people with disability were treated with such an inhumane manner. There were many cases of rape of girls with intellectual disability. They were raped by their closest relatives and outsiders as well. We even encountered a case of a girl who was raped by her grandfather.

What lessons has Karuna learnt?

The earthquake has taught us a lesson that there are still a lot of differently-able people we need to reach out to. Although there are a number of organizations like Karuna working for the disabled, we are still missing a large number of people with disability. Karuna has learnt that it needs to try its best even at normal times to help the needy. We should not wait for another disaster to rescue people with disability. 

What is the population of differently-able in Nepal?

There are some different interpretations. According to World Health Organizations, 15 percent of population are disabled in Nepal. National Census Report shows 1.96 percent of population have the disability. Karuna’s own survey based on house to house interviews taken in 40 villages showed that 5-6 percent of population lives in one or other form of disability.

How do you view the challenges?

The challenge before us is to reach out to them. Another issue is to reach to people with mental disability. There is a global debate whether to place them in the same category or not. It is very difficult in Nepal to say how many people have disability. It is unfortunate that many children with disability die before reaching adulthood. Karuna has itself lost 2 children within the last one year after a week due to negligence of parents. Many children with disability die before completing five years and remaining die before reaching 18.

As Karuna has launched special programs for the victims with disability affected by the earthquake, how many temporary shelters have you made for them?

Out of 6000 families, we have already built more than 3000 shelters. Some 400 temporary shelters were built for the affected families of people with disability in Bhaktapur, Makwanpur, Kavre and Rasuwa and other districts. They include the families of children and adults.

As you warned in July there was a high risk of trafficking of children from earthquake-hit  areas, a recent report appeared in the British newspaper that supports your prediction. How do you look at this?

It is unfortunate that we were unable to prevent the situation. However, I don’t want to blame a few organizations for this. I don’t feel any hesitation to accept the fact that this is the result of the failure of all of us. Had priority been given to children, the situation would have been  prevented.

What are the reasons behind child-trafficking?

Child-trafficking prevails because of lack of awareness among parents about the issue and factors like poverty and ineffectiveness of state machinery. The situation in the rural areas is so pathetic that parents of children, the earthquake victims, do not have shelter to live and food to feed them. In this scenario, they don’t have any option but to send their children outside home for safety and security. The parents do not hesitate to send their children even if someone assured them to admit in school, give them shelter in homes or any religious places. Due to ignorance about child abuse and trafficking, poor parents of children are often led into wrong places.

Why cannot we stop the practice?

As long as parents start believing that the outside world is more secure than home, nothing can prevent trafficking. Parents hold their babies on their own arm till their death. However, parents are doing the opposite in the earthquake-devastated areas because parents have lost hopes. Generations living under poverty are facing all kinds of hardships, the devastating earthquake completely shattered their hopes.

How many children were trafficked from earthquake-affected areas?

We don’t have exact data about how many children left the villages and how many children were sent to India and other urban areas of Kathmandu. Only after the revelation by British newspaper about an incident of child-trafficking, the issue has blown out as a global concern.

Who do you blame?

I don’t want to blame any particular institution. We all have to take the responsibility. This is the failure of all of us for not being able to assure parents. This is a failure of state, bilateral and multilateral donors, NGOs and INGOs.

Learning from this incident, we need to work hard to prevent trafficking in the future. Some children were collected by smugglers in the name of providing shelters.This was controlled following the vigilance of NGOs, community organisations and police. If we don’t take a strong step in the near future, this is likely to increase. One year has already passed, but there is no hope and people still live in desperation. They have faced all sorts of hardships and are still living in pain. How long can they live like that? The level of frustration is going to reach higher.

How do you see the state of earthquake victims?

The situation is so pathetic that people have been living in tents and temporary tunnels for the past year. Many are victims to asthma and mental stress. People are still living in camps in groups. There is no certainty when this will end. The situation is very frustrating. Only 30,000 houses or so were constructed as reported by the leading media.

How do you view the reconstruction work?

According to the estimates from our field visit, 10 to 15 percent people have already built their houses on their own. Had not there been the blockade, the number might have gone up. After the implementation of the scheme by the government, sixty to seventy percent people are likely to build their houses. The government must think about how to provide houses for 20 percent of population who live below absolute poverty line.

How has Karuna been supporting this now?

Karuna is now supporting the government as a facilitator to reach the victims to in Bridim Village of Rasuwa District.  With the request from government, Karuna has been leading the process of distribution of money. Out of 196 houses in Bridim, which is a village border with China, 161 contracts have been signed. This is the first VDC in Rasuwa where government provided 200,000 rupees for reconstruction of houses. There are 20 complaints and 25 households did not come. Given the experiences of Bridim, what I can say is that the challenge before the government is to bring the bottom 20 percent of population in the process and support them to construct the permanent houses. Otherwise, more than 100,000 households will be left out in temporary tunnels.  As so many complications exist, the government has asked us to support them in the process of providing people  with permanent houses.

As Karun has been working in earthquake devastated areas targeting to support children and persons with disability, what do you suggest for enhancing their sense of security?

If we work with commitment and honestly, nothing is impossible. It will not be difficult for us to reach them. Frankly speaking, there is no coordination at all . We are carrying out the work on our own. National Reconstruction Authority is now distributing Rs. 200,000.00 to each family that needs funds to build a house. Had NRA integrated its program with a comprehensive approach, including education, health and livelihood components and partnering with NGOs and INGOs with specialized knowledge in the work, it would have addressed the problems in a multidimensional way. 

How do you see the coordination at the district level?

Although District Development Committee has been playing a coordinative role and other government agencies at the district level have been delivering possible support, what is lacking in the district is a leading agency. There are various organizations at the district level including DDC and DOA, workin in the areas of Women and Children, Education, Agriculture, Livestock, Health and so on. They should form a common platform and request INGOs and NGOs for their involvement in the packages.

How do you see the role of NGOs and INGOs?

Although NGOs and INGOs are widely criticized, what we have seen recently is that the government needs NGOs to support social mobilization. After the earthquake what we have seen is that NGOs have the largest reach in the community. If there is no alternative for NGOs, the government agencies should accept their role. The government has to learn virtues of NGOs and INGOs.

Karuna Foundation will continue to launch awareness campaigns for the differently-able people and their rights.

As Nepal is one of the high risk countries in terms of disaster, what would be your suggestions in that regard?

We need to ensure hazard mapping to protect the persons with disability. Preparedness is another important area. We will focus on these two areas. We will work with local community organizations, health posts and district disability rehabilitation committee. We will conduct training on how to increase access to education of persons with disability. We are giving tips for remaining safe in case of future disasters. We have been conducting 7 to 10 training events in VDCs on various issues. At least twice a year, we will discuss on the disaster preparedness in the training. We will teach how to save people at risk, including children, people with disability, old and pregnant women.

How many health posts have been reconstructured in one year?

We have signed an agreement with the Ministry of Health to reconstruct 11 health posts in Rasuwa district. We have already handed over two health posts to the government and three more are at the stage of completion. Three health posts have completed ground work and an airlift is needed to construct the health posts in Yarsa, Langtang and Thuman. As we are negotiating with Nepal Army for airlifting, we will start the reconstruction work soon. We will reconstruct all 11 health posts before July and hand them over to the government.

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