September 13, 2015
Prof. Dr. Govind Raj Pokharel, the Vice-Chairman of the National Planning Commission of Nepal and the newly appointed CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority, has many years of experience in renewable energy, climate change, microfinance and rural development. At the academic level, he is Professor at the Industrial and Mechanical Engineering Department, Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University. He also has over three years experience as a Manager in SNV Netherlands Development Organization based at various South Asia locations.
Nepal has been criticized for its sluggish, if not inept response to the quakes that killed almost 9,000 people. The country failed to adequately prepare even though experts had predicted an earthquake was likely. And then the government struggled to cope with relief efforts. Five months later, many partially damaged buildings in Kathmandu are still standing and rubble is strewn across public parks. Across the nation, tens of thousands of people are still living in plastic tents, preyed upon by flies and mosquitoes, with muddy paths and no drains.
From the beginning, the reconstruction process, over which Dr. Pokharel is responsible, was plagued by governmental neglect. The government had issued an ordinance on June 22, and it had registered the replacement bill on August 1. Why was a replacement bill necessary? Because, according to the Interim Constitution, an ordinance requires approval from the parliament within 60 days of parliament’s first session. The government failed to follow the constitutional provision in time. Once again, Nepal’s government showboated its impotence to carry out its most important responsibilities.
This problem is scheduled to be addressed in parliament on September 17 and it looks certain that, at last, the government will rectify its serious oversight by re-booting the National Reconstruction Authority, thereby beginning the distribution of the 4.1 billion dollar pledge received by international donors.
In the event, at this crucial moment in Nepal’s history, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pokharel at his office in the Shinga Durbar (Parliament) complex on September 10.
DUNHAM: Dr. Pokharel, I was here during the earthquake and in the immediate aftermath I was impressed by Nepal’s response – particularly in regard to the professionalism of the Nepal Army. In the interim, one of the things that the international media has pounced on is the fact that, although there is a 4.1 billion dollar pledge by the international community, established at the donors’ conference of June 23, those funds have still not been released. The press has been outraged and there has been a lot of bad publicity, although no one seems interested in reporting an adequate explanation of the causes for the delay. What, in your opinion, are the underlying problems of getting these funds distributed?
POKHAREL: I think there are two issues as to why there has been this delay. One, Nepal is still in political transition and the whole political establishment is concentrating on constitution-drafting and crisis management. You can imagine, during this parliamentary session, that the government forgot about getting the three ordinances approved on time. Not only this one [National Reconstruction Authority], but also there are two ordinances waiting for parliamentary approval: the Cooperative Ordinance [microfinance] and the Public Procurement Act. So you can see how busy they are. There are negotiations everyday. Sometimes even I don’t have access to the prime minister for two or three days at a time because the prime minister is otherwise engaged in four-political-party meetings, three-party meetings, and all-party meetings. That has really diverted the politicians’ attention from reconstruction. Two, is that all of this has transpired during the monsoon. The understanding of most of the people, who are not affected, is that “reconstruction” means only building houses or schools or physical infrastructures, which is not true. You have to reconstruct social infrastructures as well. You have to reconstruct economic infrastructures, as well, which are equal or more important than physical infrastructures. During the rainy season, in the rural areas, you cannot build houses, in general, because Nepalis traditionally build houses made of stone and mud – not houses built of cement. Traditional house need to be built in the dry seasons.
Simultaneously, the National Planning Commission and other agencies are preparing a draft to address all the modalities, mechanisms and policies directed toward reconstruction. Only today, I finalized the Land Acquisition and Land Registration modalities.
DUNHAM: Which is a big hurdle.
POKHAREL: Yes, it is a hurdle. Now it will be approved, once the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) is revived, at which time the NRA can send its recommendations to the Cabinet for approval. That’s only one week away. We also have the Reconstruction Policy draft at the final stage, which can be approved, once the NRA is revived. Also in the works are a Fast-Track Procurement Act and a Fast-Track Environment Assessment Act.
DUNHAM: What do you mean by “Fast-Track”. [The current Procurement Act has a 35-day period of public notification.
POKHAREL: The basics of the process will be kept in tact, but the time period will be significantly reduced. For example, the Fast-Track Procurement Act will reduce the current 35-day stipulation to 7 days. The formal process – the 7-day notice for those who want to work with us, who want to supply us with consultants, and other matters – the process will be greatly expedited. Also, the Fast-Track Procurement Act allows suppliers sufficient time to prepare their proposals, prior to the formal announcement of Expression of Interest (EOI). Likewise, land acquisition will be reduced to a two-month process.
DUNHAM: And when is all of this going to be implemented?
POKHAREL: Today is the 10th, and the parliamentary session is on the 17th. Once the parliament starts, within two or three days, as agreed by the political parties, they will revive the NRA. We already have set up a new office. We have a few staff on deputation from other ministries. We can recruit immediately other consultants, then we can move ahead. There are more than 29 different housing design models that have been finalized. Today there was a housing-cluster meeting, during which more than 60 partners attended. On Sunday, [September 13] we will meet with experts and hear their views and ideas and, we hope, that the rural housing issue will be finalized then.
In short, the modalities to be employed for rural housing will be completed. And the government has already established that each household affected by the earthquake will receive 2 lakhs Rupees, which is 2000 US dollars.
DUNHAM: So the logjam is about to be broken?
POKHAREL: Yes, a lot of logjams. Until the NRA is legally re-established, I cannot even procure consultants. I was appointed as the CEO of the NRA only two weeks before the constitutional deadline lapsed, thereby negating the NRA’s legitimacy. Out of those two weeks, four of those days were useless because Nepal bandhs were imposed. Even so, in the meantime, we have been working hard to be prepared for the day when the NRA is re-activated. When that happens, we will be able to hit the ground running. On one level, the monsoon has worked in our favor, since actual construction could not be done during this time.
DUNHAM: And now the monsoon is about to end.
POKHAREL: Yes, but for all practical purposes, you need to figure in the fact that Dashain is quickly approaching. [All governmental offices will be closed from October 13 – 24. Also, 15 days after Dashain, the 4-day Tihar holiday will ensue, so that realistically, uninterrupted governmental work will only resume in mid-November.]
It is only then that construction work can begin. Right now, lots of males are in India or other countries working. Many of them will come back to Nepal during the festival time. They will bring money, which is important because the government is giving only $2000 per damaged household and those extra dollars will really make a difference.
Certainly, the development partners, who are providing us with billions of dollars, need time to produce project documents, which will also slow down the process. Other infrastructures, like social infrastructures, school buildings, government buildings, heritage sites – these need to be handled very carefully as well, which takes time. So, yes, the monsoon and the upcoming holidays are giving the NRA and the development partner’s more time before actual construction can begin.
For the rural housing, some delays are there. But if the NRA hits the ground running, we are in good shape and can manage construction at a faster pace.
DUNHAM: I’m working as a consultant for Operation USA. We are an American NGO with 30 years of post-disaster relief in stricken foreign countries. We are in the process of building a school in Fyakse, Dhading. But we are also interested in additional projects that would have obvious benefits for those local Nepali communities hardest hit by the April earthquakes. What other projects would you suggest? What are Govind Raj Pokharel’s priorities? What is most needed in terms of reconstruction?
POKHAREL: The main hurdle is how to revive the economy. Reconstruction is not only physical reconstruction. The simplest task is to build houses. Building the economy, and fixing broken social elements are the biggest things in need of support. Donors: Give us fresh ideas as to how we can remedy our economic and social problems.
For example, we have ample organizations available to us that, eventually, could potentially build all the damaged schools and hospitals in Nepal. But the equipment for the hospitals, and the availability of doctors and nurses and staff – and the ability for patients to afford hospital treatment – these are the biggest challenges. That’s why I’m asking business organizations, donors and philanthropists, “Please, don’t just concentrate on building houses. Here’s an alternative: Help two-hundred families be able to earn at least two-hundred dollars a month.” These kinds of ideas, funding and technical support are what we most need during the reconstruction. Only then can we say that we have built a resilient Nepal. Building dry houses without food is not reconstruction.
DUNHAM: What do you think are the biggest challenges for Nepal in the post-earthquake era? I think it’s going to take at least ten years to get Nepal back to where it was before the earthquakes. We were seriously deprived of necessary infrastructure before the earthquakes. This 2015 natural disaster has set us back even more.
POKHAREL: Yes, there are three main challenges. One, management of human resources -- from staffing the NRA to the actual reconstruction process. It’s not only the masons, electricians and plumbers that are needed, but also people who can process food, people who can support the supply-chain mechanism from urban to rural, and vice versa, bringing the products of rural areas to cities. In such areas, we have a human-resource-scarcity problem.
Two, the second main challenge is coordination. Private sector, philanthropists, civil society, political parties, different ministries – everyone wants to be the boss of their own office, here, in Nepal. They want to build their own kingdom within their own sphere of influence. This attitude is not beneficial if you want to have a coordinated effort.
Three, the third challenge is resources in terms of finance and materials. For example, heritage sites require specific kinds of wood of exact sizes. Other, different materials are required for different non-heritage structures.
And here’s another situation: Let’s say that someone is here supporting the building of a hospital. If they don’t also take into account the necessity of supporting handicap people or orphans, for example – who is going to come in and support those overlooked sectors?
Although 4.1 billion dollars have been given to Nepal to re-build Nepal, you may miss certain sectors and sub-sectors where there is no willingness or interest from the donors to make contributions.
DUNHAM: That list of overlooked sectors would be a really interesting document to have! That would be something I would gladly publish. People contact me all the time asking what’s the best way to contribute to the reconstruction of Nepal.
POKHAREL: That list will soon be available. Today I was in a housing-cluster meeting comprised of people who are technically supporting the housing sector. They have divided themselves into different districts. It is very nice preparatory homework.
Similarly, I had a meeting with organizations, that are training masons, electricians, and so on. We have already identified the three categories of potential workers: fresh trainees, already trained masons – and instruct them on new methods directed toward earthquake resistance – and training of trainers. We have already assigned CTEVT [The Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training], which is coordinating this and updating us and we request that all partners to contact them.
We have also requested our development partners to provide us with their work schedules. For example: OXFAM International comes in and they will train 20 people or 100 people in one location and UN Habitat comes in and trains 300 people in another area. We are saying, “No, no, no. Please don’t do that. Please provide us with all of your schedules and programs. We will not disturb your program, but we will try to prevent overlaps.”
DUNHAM: You are talking about coordination. I would love to contact you in two months or so and ask, “What’s still being overlooked? And what are the projects that no international donors want to touch?”
POKHAREL: In the meantime, the biggest challenge is the political deadlock. I was appointed the CEO and I hope I’ll be given the chance to continue, once the NRA is revived. Until today – as of half-an-hour before this interview – it looks as though I will be given that opportunity.
For further information about Nepal’s National Planning Commission, link here:
For more information about Operation USA, link here: