In early May the government pledged 200,000 Nrs. to every family who lost their house in the earthquake. Shortly after, it was decided to quickly hand out an initial 15,000 Nrs. – as an immediate emergency grant – for building temporary shelters before the monsoon. It wasn’t a huge amount but enough to buy zink sheets and get a roof over the head, and so it seemed to solve one of the most urgent matters in the earthquake aftermath: to provide at least some shelter from the elements before the rain started. But then the program stalled!
It all began when it was decided to issue earthquake victim ID cards. The ID cards were needed to make sure that no fake victims – people whose houses were intact – would claim the money as well. However, in a situation where the worst affected districts were already faced with great difficulties in bringing out relief and assessing the destruction, this was a huge task. Local authorities were struggling to get help to their areas and yet now they were also asked, amidst rubble and landslides, to survey all the villages and register all the victims!
Who at district and village level was going to carry out this huge task? Well, that question became an issue of disagreement at once. The Home Ministry agreed to print the ID cards but the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development was asked to instruct its local staff – the VDC secretaries – to come to the district office and collect the ID cards and then return to issue the cards in their respective Village Development Committees (VDCs). The VDC secretaries were needed in the VDCs, however, and so ultimately the Home Ministry agreed to ship the ID cards from district to VDC level.
But by then it was already late May – and the obstacles in the distribution of victim ID cards had only just started! First of all, the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development soon reported that one out of every six VDCs in the affected districts were, in fact, without a VDC secretary. In addition, VDC secretaries – even where posted – were not always available at the VDC office. Absenteeism is notoriously high. So, in many VDCs it was unclear who would in practice register the victims and issue the IDs!
The government decided to call for local reinforcement. They mobilised the Multiparty Mechanism in the VDCs: local committees comprised of local party leaders, created some years back as advisory bodies to the VDC secretaries and as substitutes for the local government bodies proper that were last elected in 1997 – and have, in fact, remained dissolved as elected bodied ever since 2002! So, did the local party leaders help in collecting information in their respective VDCs about the earthquake victims? Well, some did agree to contribute.
Local leaders, however, were not all motivated. Local elections have not been in sight for years, so why make an extra effort to help voters who might never get to elect them?! But some local leaders did collect critical information and were able to clarify cases where the VDC secretary was in doubt regarding an applicant’s identity. The leaders would sometimes help with first-hand knowledge about house ownership in the VDC, clarifying whether or not one or the other applicant’s claim to the 15,000 Nrs. was valid.
Meanwhile, however, other local leaders in the affected VDCs were reported to engage in favouritism in the distribution of the ID cards. Some VDC secretaries complained that local leaders would register relatives, friends and supporters even when they were not entitled to help! In Saathi-ghar in Kavre, the VDC secretary was caught distributing over six hundred ID cards to “fake” earthquake victims under the strong influence of one local party – all the while others who lost their house were still waiting.
Other issues delayed the distribution of ID cards too, and one of them was lack of documentation among those villagers who had lost their house. Some house owners had lost their citizenship cards in the house rubbles – and without this card in hand it is next to impossible to obtain services from the government through formal channels, whether it’s getting a passport or a victim ID. A copy is sometimes kept at the VDC office but many could not retrieve it either because the VDC office was destroyed too or the VDC secretary was not available to open it!
The overriding issue, however, was soon a considerable discrepancy between the number of applicants – who claimed that their houses were destroyed – and the most recent census data. The number of houses supposedly destroyed in the earthquake proved to be much higher than the total number of households counted a few years earlier! In Sindhupalchowk, for example, 28,000 applicants registered, but the total number of households is only 22,000; in Nuwakot, the discrepancy was 79,000 to 56,000 households – and so it continued!
The reaction of the local CDOs – the District Administration Office chiefs – was to pull the breaks on the distribution of ID Cards! In Nuwakot where the disprepancies were highest, teams of building experts were dispatched to the VDCs to investigate. The discrepancy was in some part due to households owning more than one house: they tried to apply under two different names to get 15,000 rupees twice. But others tried their luck without being entitled at all, some of them not even residing in the VDCs!
Ultimately, the initial emergency grant of 15,000 was delayed to the extent of not really being an emergency grant at all. By mid July, many VDCs had still not received anything! The situation was worst in Nuwakot – the district with the biggest discrepancy between applicant families and registered households – as only 5,000 had received ID cards and grant money by July 12. The status right now in the affected districts is unclear but it’s certain that while the distribution is on in earnest, it’s with a significant delay!
Were there other causes of this delay? Well, lack of local staff combined with difficult terrain and poor infrastructure was also a huge issue. Understaffed local authorities had to struggle to cover the vast areas hit by the earthquake. Government did dispatch extra personnel but it was far from enough. Said senior officer at Chautara Municipality, Shree Krishna Poudel, in early June: “As technical teams have to walk for days, it will take at least two months before the system is fully operational.” This proved correct.
Could the government have distributed the 15,000 rupees diffently? Well, as it turned out the ID card system did not prevent the misuse which it was proposed to tackle. In mid-July, over fifty people were arrested in Kavre alone for posing as earthquake victims, and many more are likely to be added in the districts in months to come. Meanwhile, thousands of families entitled to the grant had to wait for weeks before the authorities felt ready to issue the ID cards. Could the 15,000 Nrs. have been released quicker? Well, if the ID cards still had to be distributed before the cash, maybe not. After all – given the conditions – issuing civic documents in thousands of earthquake-hit villages in Nepal will probably never be a swift exercise.