How do you look at the state of private housing reconstruction?
Lately, private housing reconstruction has taken pace. I have said that I would make all efforts possible to accelerate the speed of the reconstruction on a foundation laid by my predecessors.
What are the problems and how are you solving them?
Whenever I face problems, I focus on giving priority to change or amend the process. As an example, when I was first appointed the CEO, Village Municipality and Rural Municipality severely lacked the technical manpower. However, as soon as I took charge as the CEO, NRA recruited and posted engineers, overseers and sub-engineers to work at the local level.
What changes have you made in the last three months?
In the last three months, we have trained more than 5,000 masons in multiple earthquake affected districts, villages and wards. In cooperation with the local bodies, we were able to settle the scarcity of construction materials. Specifically, gravel, stone and sand. With support from the Ministry of Forest, we were also able to solve the shortage of wood. NRA has also made a provision to supply housing plans free of cost to victims as far as the problems of housing plans and designs are concerned.
Earthquake victims are often reported to be unable to receive private housing grant because of lengthy and tedious processes.
As the CEO of the NRA, how do you see the state of housing grant distribution?
We have fixed the time frame of within a week for the approval of the housing plans and also settled the right of way of roads issue with local levels. NRA is currently pushing its programs through local levels as it gives the elected representatives of the local levels a driving seat to lead reconstruction. A week after my appointment, I called a meeting with the representatives of the Federation of District Committees, Municipal Association and Federation of Rural Municipalities. The meeting issued a 28-point joint declaration, which stressed the need for the reconstruction to accelerate.
Don’t you think the recommendation process is lengthy?
As there was a complexity in the recommendation process to release the first installment to beneficiaries, we have shortened the process, removing hurdles in the recommendation, keeping in mind the need of accelerating earthquake housing reconstruction. I also called a meeting of donors and government officials to make the process shorter and easier. My proposal was all the decisions related to distribution of installment under private housing reconstruction should be given to local levels. However, the World Bank has reservations over this.
Why does the World Bank have such a reservation?
As per the financing agreement made between The World Bank and Nepal's Government, there are no provisions to allow local levels to handle reconstruction. To make the process fast, we took a decision to simplify the process at district level units. Under the leadership of district coordinator of District Coordination Office, we formed a committee with Chief District Officer, District Forest Officer, District Land Reform Officer, Local Development Officer, District Financial Controller Officer and Bank managers. We have directed them to hold a meeting on a weekly basis. As The World Bank’s Review Mission is visiting Nepal in March, we will discuss the issue to simplify the process. As all the donor agencies follow the World Bank’s procedures, we have no alternative other than following it even if the process becomes very complex and complicated. If we follow the present procedures, it will take at least six weeks for us to receive the first installment. I am trying to shorten it by bringing it to two weeks.
How do you see the reconstruction of houses for the marginalized and vulnerable population?
We are considering a request to INGOs, NGOs and other voluntary organizations to support us by providing grant to the old, single women and the disabled to reconstruct their houses or provide Rs.300.000.00 to them directly. We are now making the process different from the regular process of reconstruction. If we are able to separate them from the regular process, which is longer and complex, the reconstruction of the houses for vulnerable and marginalized population will become faster. I have many reservations over the present complex private housing reconstruction process. I am making efforts to simplify it. As our reconstruction very much relies on development partners, NRA cannot go alone on this. Now we are facilitating on how to simplify the process.
As there are a lot of complaints regarding the behavior of technical staff deputed by NRA in the reconstruction area, how does NRA look at this?
As most of the technical staff, particularly engineers, who are deputed to the reconstructions areas, are from rich urban families, they have little knowledge about the local situation and social values of the communities they work in. One cannot rule out the possibility of wrong behavior of the staff. After my appointment, I have started a system where newly appointed engineers have to take an oath in the name of their ancestral gods to commit to work towards the welfare of people. My intention is to make them morally responsible.
Why do victims complain about the role of engineers?
I find the fault in our engineering education as well. Those who completed civil engineering in an urban environment don’t have the knowledge about the rural areas. They have no knowledge about Nepal’s rural building construction. We are now providing them a ten-day long intensive training before sending them to work in earthquake-hit areas. To make them more accountable to the earthquake victims, I have been making efforts. Unlike in the past when NRA deputed engineers at the district level, we are now deputing them in the ward level so that they are loyal to ward offices rather than districts. Dividing the local levels in five categories, we are providing up to 25 to 75 percent additional increment in salary to the engineers. We are giving them placement on the basis of a merit list. We are also fulfilling the position from the waiting list. So far as rent seeking from the earthquake victims is concerned, NRA fires such individuals immediately if they are found guilty. As we have deputed technical staff, including the engineers at the ward offices of local levels in earthquake reconstruction areas, it is the responsibility of local leaders to take action against those who go against the law. Our work is to facilitate in the housing of earthquake affected people.
People still complain that engineers are not helping them?
I have given clear guidelines to the engineers that they are deputed to sort out the problems not to make the issue complex. As per our direction, engineers are now supporting the local people to reconstruct their houses, making them earthquake resilient. NRA has also been visiting the rural and urban municipalities of affected districts and giving necessary directions to the technical staff from time to time. Their role is to find a solution, not to create problems.
At a time when more than 600,000 received the first installment; fewer than 200,000 have applied for second tranche of money, what may be the reason behind the situation?
We have 767705 beneficiaries. However, 685,000 have signed the agreement. Out of 791 old settlements, there is the need to resettle 132. Their names are not included and many of them have left to foreign countries and many of them are living in forests and public lands. If these people left the public places, NRA will provide Rs.200.000 to purchase the land. Out of 685,000, 672,000 beneficiaries secured the first tranche of money. As per the mandatory recommendation of technical staff for second tranche, with construction of basement or DPC, many seem to have yet to use their money.
What is the state now?
As per my report till February 10, more than 250,000 beneficiaries have applied for the second tranche, 200,000 beneficiaries have already secured the second tranche. Most of their application is in the process of verification. Almost 70,000 beneficiaries have demanded third tranches. As of today, 96,000 houses have already been constructed and 276,000 have applied for the second tranche. We have set the target to build 100,000 houses and 300,000 houses are under construction. We had a target to complete 450,000 or sixty percent houses by middle of January. We are achieving the target set by us. The pace of earthquake reconstruction started just after the completion of elections and winter harvesting and after deputing the engineers to different districts. If there is certain weakness on the part of engineers, NRA immediately replaces such engineers with new appointees. We have toll-free numbers to register the complaints. Once we receive the complaint, we will immediately take actions.
As you said NRA is planning to hold donor consortium meeting, why do you need to hold it now?
It is necessary to call the meeting of donor consortium to reevaluate our performance and pace of work as well as budget. We require 9 billion rupees for reconstruction and the government is not in a position to provide all the money. As the pace of reconstruction is taking speed, there is a huge gap of budget. The government has released 196 billion rupees in earthquake budget through red book and other amounts are directly dispersed by development partners. Out of 196 billion rupees, Indian government has agreed to provide 1 billion. As Rs. 77 billion has already been spent in reconstruction, there is going to be a gap soon. As the pace of reconstruction picks up, the demand of budget has increased. Ramechhap district alone has demanded additional 3 billion rupees and Nuwakot district secured 900 million rupees recently. As the country is in the process of restructuring, with federalism in operation, the government budget is allocating huge amounts of money to provinces. Under the new voluntary retirement scheme, the government alone needs additional 60 billion rupees. When there is a huge gap of resources in treasury, the reconstruction also gets the effect. There is a high demand of money. The government has also decided to increase Rs.100.000.00 each to flood victims. All these will require additional money. As half of the earthquake reconstruction period will complete by June, the consortium meeting will help us show the progress and seek to fill the gap of the budget for remaining period.
It is said that the government’s earlier decision to restrict the role of INGOs and NGOs in reconstruction has affected the reconstruction of housing, what do you say?
I agree that the government restricted the role of INGOs and NGOs in early stage. However, NRA has allowed those INGOs and NGOs, who agree to abide by Nepal government’s rules and regulations. Many INGOs and NGOs have been working with us in reconstruction of private housing, health posts, hospitals, school buildings, and restoration of drinking water and livelihood.
How do you see the performance of INGOs and NGOs?
Some of them have already completed their task and some of them are still working in many earthquake affected districts. I have directed all concerned INGOs and NGOs to come to us, whenever they feel difficulty.
How do you see the recent controversy on heritage reconstruction, particularly on Ranipokhari?
Heritage sites reconstruction is making progress. In Patan, Bhaktapur and Nuwakot, the pace is good. Disputes surfaced on Ranipokhari reconstruction last month. After the submission of a report by high level committee, the problem is settled now. Disputes appeared because of lack of transparency and public debates.
How do you see the possibility of using old materials in reconstruction?
Of course, the priority should be given to our own materials. However, one cannot insist on just using the traditional materials only in reconstruction. Many of our traditional raw materials have disappeared now because of urbanization. It is difficult to find the black clay. My point is that there should be a priority for traditional and old materials. But, mixing certain amounts of modern materials to make the building earthquake resilient must be allowed. However, the facets of temples and heritage sites should not be compromised. For instance, the reconstruction of Durbar High School and Dharhara, we need to mix materials to make them resistant and safe.
As a majority of Rana Palaces were damaged by earthquake and some are still usable with retrofitting, what is the policy of the NRA regarding them?
Our policy is to retrofit or renovate all heritage sites including Rana Palaces. We are already in the process of retrofitting Singha Durbar, Harihar Bhawan, Bagh Durbar, Babar Mahal and Shree Mahal. The old heritage sites will be preserved retaining their original facets.
How about the school reconstruction?
So far as the reconstruction of school buildings is concerned, we have already reconstructed over 60 percent of school buildings. We are now in the process of reconstruction of over 7500 schools. NRA has been facilitating reconstruction.