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Earthquake response featured in The New York Review of Books 2016

Ismail Ferdous/Redux

Joshua Hammer MAY 12, 2016 ISSUE

by Thomas Bell
London: Haus, 500 pp., $29.95
Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal
by Prashant Jha
London: Hurst, 358 pp., $30.00 (paper) (distributed in the US by Oxford University Press)

Early one morning I set out from Kathmandu in a four-wheel-drive vehicle for Sindhupalchowk district, just east of Gorkha, where some of the worst earthquake damage had occurred. According to government statistics, 96.8 percent of the district’s houses were destroyed, 3,550 people were killed, and thousands injured. I was joined on the journey by Pradip Khatiwada, the coordinator of the National Volunteering Program, one of the many unlicensed groups that are providing building materials and other supplies to villagers who had been abandoned by the Nepali government. His group has seven thousand volunteers, and is active in fourteen out of seventy-five districts. Driving out of the Kathmandu Valley, we passed long lines of motorcyclists waiting to fill their tanks with their allotted five liters of fuel. The blockade had lifted days earlier, but India was sending only 70 percent of its normal fuel supplies, and the shortages continued. “During the worst of the fuel crisis lines were three miles long, and people waited for twelve hours or more,” he told me. “So this is a big improvement.”

A few miles down a dirt track past the heavily damaged district capital, Chautara, we came upon Peepaldada, a hamlet of six hundred people clinging to a hillside overlooking a fertile valley. Ten months after the earthquake, most of the population was still living beneath tarpaulins. “The winter was very difficult for us,” a toothless old man told me. Some had built crude structures using the rubble from their destroyed homes; the neediest had received iron frames from the volunteer group, which they had lined with corrugated tin walls and covered with a tin roof. The only assistance they had received from the government was 10,000 rupees in emergency relief just after the earthquake ($100), 15,000 rupees received in December to get them through the winter, and eight pieces of corrugated tin. Khatiwada, the volunteer coordinator, told me that during the last few weeks the government’s paralysis had begun to ease. The Reconstruction Authority had dispatched teams into the hills to assess damage and had announced a payment of 200,000 rupees to each homeless family. It had also pledged to guarantee loans of up to 2.5 million rupees per family so that they could complete construction of their new houses. Payment was contingent upon the families’ choosing from one of fifteen different earthquake-resistant designs formulated by structural engineers. The government had pledged to build 600,000 houses in the next year, but Khatiwada told me that that goal was unreachable. “It will be more like five years,” he told me.

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