Dec 292015
 

Waiting for the NRA: woman in front of a typical shelter (Kavre)

Waiting for the NRA: woman in front of a typical shelter (Kavre)

Out in the districts hit by the earthquake in April, locals have long-since started to build temporary shelters. How temporary – or permanent – those shelters are going to be is an open question. The answer, though, lies in no small part with the government and it’s National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). The government has already released 15,000 rs. (around USD 200) to every household whose home was destroyed – but they have pledged a lot more. Indeed, USD 4,4 billion are in the pipeline for reconstruction! However, the NRA, tasked with distributing all this money, has not really started working yet.

The NRA was ready on paper ahead of the donor conference on reconstruction in June

The NRA was ready on paper ahead of the donor conference on reconstruction in June

Is it going to start working soon? Well, by late December it appears that now it will. But how could it take so long? In fact, the NRA was born in a spirit of great urgency. NC and UML – the two biggest parties – decided already in mid-June to create the NRA by an ordinance of the government, not legislation, exactly to set it up quickly. A donor conference was coming up on June 25, and to reassure donors of the government’s readiness to utilize any funds donated for reconstruction, NC and UML leaders decided to create the NRA at the earliest.

USD 4,4 billion was officially available to the NRA by late June: another family waiting for money to rebuild

USD 4,4 billion was officially available to the NRA by late June: another family waiting for money to rebuild

The UCPN (Maoist) and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic) objected to issuing an ordinance. They demanded a legislative process that would determine the NRA mandate and who was to head it by law. But in spite of these objections, NC and UML went ahead with the ordinance. Indeed, at the donor conference on June 25 on reconstruction after the earthquake, donors appeared to have few reservations to commit sizeable funds. In total, they pledged grants and soft loans worth of USD 4,4 billion. In other words, a huge sum was in place to be utilized by the NRA already by late June!

"We are in the process of establishing the reconstruction authority." Finance Minister, Mahat, explaining the delay

“We are in the process of establishing the reconstruction authority.” Finance Minister, Mahat, explaining the delay

However, then trouble began. Lots of money was in the pipeline – and a much bigger amount than most had expected – but the actual creation of the NRA was now being postponed despite the ordinance. Why this delay? Well, Finance Minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, who was expected to join as a member of the NRA, said it just took time to set up the NRA: “The new fiscal year has just begun. We are in the process of establishing the reconstruction authority.” But in the party corridors, a certain dispute not least over who was to sit in the NRA was now unfolding. NC preferred one arrangement, UML another!

What was this dispute about, more specifically? Well, NC leaders wanted certain bureaucrats at the helm of the NRA, while UML insisted on filling the positions with party leaders and even MPs (Members of Parliament) who would be more “accountable” to the people and know the “local needs”. Above all, UML leaders were not happy with NC’s choice of candidate for Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the NRA. NC wanted to appoint vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, a known NC sympathizer, while UML wished to appoint a different candidate!

On August 13, CEO of the NRA was finally selected: Govind Raj Pokhrel when still optimistic

On August 13, CEO of the NRA was finally selected: Govind Raj Pokhrel when still optimistic

On August 13, this dispute was temporarily put to rest and the NRA was created in practice. Who, then, was appointed to head and manage this high-level agency tasked with handling over USD 4 billion? Well, the Prime Minister was named the political head, while the vice chairman of the National Planning Commission, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, was indeed selected as CEO. Then came four ordinary members, all of them ministers, including the Minister of Finance, Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Urban Development, and Minister for Civil Aviation and Culture. Add to that a number of technical experts, and the National Reconstruction Authority finally seemed ready to take off!

Re-adjourning parliament one day too late to ratify the NRA ordinance: Nembang

Re-adjourning parliament one day too late to ratify the NRA ordinance: Nembang

The life of the agency, however, should turn out unexpectedly short. Reason? A technicality! The ordinance authorizing the NRA to function had to be ratified in parliament no later than August 31. Otherwise, the NRA would have to be dissolved and its very revival depend on a bill of legislation. Some interests were in favour of this outcome – and so, here’s what happened. In mid-August, parliament went for recess, and Speaker, Subash Chandra Nembang (UML), known for his political cunning, decided to re-adjourn the House only on September 1 – which was one day too late to ratify the ordinance!

Cunning or forgetfulness? Leaders missed the deadline to renew the NRA mandate in parliament on August 31

Cunning or forgetfulness? Leaders missed the deadline to renew the NRA mandate in parliament on August 31

The NRA was dissolved! How could NC forget to have the ordinance ratified? Indeed, did Speaker of the House and UML senior politician, Nembang, decide to readjourn parliament one day too late on purpose? The answer is unknown – but the whole course of events could look like another machination “behind the curtains” so common in Nepali politics. To newly appointed CEO, Govinda Raj Pokhrel, the dissolution of his agency came as a shock. “I was off to a flying start,” said Pokhrel. “We had collected a strong team and policies were being formulated. So it was a complete shock when I found out that the Reconstruction Authority was no longer a legal government entity.”

What about now?! Well, fast forward to December. It took over three months of further discussion among party leaders before the bill to revive the NRA was finally tabled and passed in parliament. On December 16, the House passed the bill, even with a large margin. The Madhesi parties walked out of the hall, demanding that a bill on amendment of the new constitution be debated first. But otherwise, everybody was in favour. So, with such legislative support for the NRA, was the road now clear? Not entirely. One stumbling block again remained before the NRA could start: whom to select as CEO?

Still waiting for government support to rebuild: inside a typical shelter, unfit for winter

Still waiting for government support to rebuild: inside a typical shelter, unfit for winter

Whom to select as CEO – the person to manage the USD 4,4 billion donor money – was undecided for nearly two weeks. NC and UML immediately agreed on the main selection criterion, namely that it must a “non-political figure”: someone equipped with sufficient experience and skills but not with a party badge of any colour. The UCPN-Maoists shared this principle too. Party spokesperson, Dinanath Sharma, made his party’s stance clear: “Let it be a capable person, but not a party cadre.” But one thing is principles, another whether they could find such a candidate in practice. In the end, they could!

Sushil Gyawali, CEO of the NRA - finally revived in December - pledges immediate relief to the affected districts

Sushil Gyawali, CEO of the NRA – finally revived in December – pledges immediate relief to the affected districts

On December 25, a Cabinet meeting at Singha Durbar selected Sushil Gyawali, executive director at the Town Development Fund, as new CEO of the NRA. So, who is Gyawali? Well, he’s a civil engineer by education, and he does indeed express strong commitment to manage the NRA carefully. “My first priority is to offer immediate relief to the quake victims in winter,” Sushil Gyawali said after his appointment. “The integrity of the authority will not be compromised. We will have a strong framework in place to ensure transparency.”

Earthquake relief and reconstruction work is already tainted by favouritism and misuse of funds. Time will show whether the NRA will start its work quickly and indeed turn a different page in the way relief and reconstruction funds are managed. The political bickering over the appointment of CEO – delaying the start-up of the NRA for more than six months! – is not reassuring, as it suggests that strong political interests are at stake that could also interfere later on. For the sake of the millions of earthquake victims waiting for help, we hope they won’t.

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