22-28 July 2016 #818

Post-mortem of a tragedy

The confluence of offences and lapses that resulted in the death of two bright young students
Om Astha Rai

Pics: Bikram Rai
BACK TO SCHOOL: Rihan Kunwar, Disant Prasain and Nitesh Tamang entertain their Grade 3 classmates on their first day back in school after the 1 July tragedy.

Grade 3 students of Pushpanjali School in Godavari, who survived a recent deadly wall collapse that crushed two classmates to death, returned to school on Monday. It is an indication of how children can recover from traumatic events, that there is almost no hint of the calamity that befell them that rainy morning of 1 July.

The students, smiling and happy, gathered around to watch seven-year-old Rihan Kunwar enthral everyone with a Nepali folk dance. He was joined by his friends Disant Prasain and Nitesh Tamang, and when the two failed to synchronise their footwork, the whole classroom burst into laughter. 

“This is how we are trying to move forward. We no longer talk about that day, we do not want them to dwell on it,” said Principal Puhami Kanti Bajracharya.

The new classroom is in a rented house near the prefab structure that was smothered by the wall. The temporary classroom — where children’s drawings are still littered among the debris of rock and mud — was being used after the main school building was itself destroyed in last year’s earthquake.

Gopen Rai
The prefab classroom that was destroyed.

Although the children seem to have moved on, the catastrophe still reverberates for the school and faculty, guardians, property developers who built an illegal retaining wall, municipality and police. The families of 10-year-old Anjana Pun and 9-year-old Kripa Rai, who died in the tragedy, have not received compensation. And some of the 26 students who were injured are still recovering.

Naresh Bajracharya, one of the developers (and owners) of the housing colony, is still at large, while his partner Karma Lama is in B&B Hospital suffering from hypertension and too ill to be taken into custody. On Tuesday, Pushpanjali School filed a written complaint against Lama and Bajracharya at the Satdobato Police Circle in Lalitpur. Ama Ghar, the shelter where Anjana Pun was staying, has also lodged a written grievance against them.

Om Astha Rai
Karma Lama in hospital.

Inspector Shyamal Subba, who is investigating this case, says Lama is under police watch and a search for Bajracharya is ongoing. “He is not home, and his phone is off, but we will find him,” Subba said.

Lama and Bajracharya had bought the 3,000 sq m rice terrace above the school at a discount, levelled it using an excavator, and built a 2.5 m-high rock and mud retaining wall right next to the prefabricated classroom.  

Principal Bajracharya says she repeatedly told Lama that the wall was dangerous, but Lama's reply was that it had been designed by an engineer. However, Nepali Times has learnt that he had neither obtained permission from the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) to level the land, nor from the Godavari municipality office to build the wall.

Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) guidelines state that the landscape of the three districts of the Valley cannot be altered without permission from KVDA. From his hospital bed, Lama told us he did not get the permit because ownership of the land had not been fully transferred, as the partners had only paid Rs 5 million and were trying to secure loans. The Godavari Municipality office is barely 500 m from Pushpanjali School, yet appears to have been clueless about the unauthorised wall coming up. 

“It would be illegal to build any physical structure without design approval, but we cannot stop it just because it is illegal,” said Rom Bahadur Mahat, Chief Executive of the Godavari Municipality. “It is like asking the police to stop every single murder because killing someone is illegal.”

Property speculators often buy cheap farmland on the outskirts of the Valley and sell them at a profit, flouting housing colony guidelines and without KVDA permission. Some bribe their way through, particularly when they have to sell the plots.

Suresh Kumar Regmi of KVDA Lalitpur shrugs his shoulders as he says: “Even if they do not come to us to seek permission, we do not have a mechanism to go after them.”

With lax monitoring, it was easy for Lama and Bajracharya to get away with an unlawful and weak retaining wall that could not withstand the weight of the rain-saturated soil behind it. A committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) to investigate this case has held Lama and Bajracharya guilty for ‘not following engineering standards’ and ‘not seeking permission’. The committee also blames Pushpanjali School for not having filed a written objection. 

Principal Puhami Kanti Bajracharya.

Bonnie Ellison of Ama Ghar says all three parties are responsible for the tragedy: “The school failed to file a written complaint, and the municipality was ignorant of what was going on in its own neighbourhood, but the major share of the blame falls on the developers because they intentionally built a retaining wall that was not sufficient by any engineering criteria.”

Following written complaints by Ama Ghar and Pushpanjali School, police are preparing to take Lama and Bajracharya to court. Even if convicted, they will have to pay no more than Rs 500 fine or face a maximum of two years in jail, or both.


Lives cut short

Anjana Pun (pictured), 10, lost her father when she was just five. Her mother found it difficult to raise her, so she sent Anjana to Ama Ghar, a children’s shelter in Lalitpur, last year.

At Grade 3 in Pushpanjali School along with four other Ama Ghar children, Anjana was smart, friendly and popular. She was one of the children taken in by the shelter after the earthquake last year.

On the morning of 1 July, she left for school with her bag and umbrella. Her classes were being held in a temporary classroom after the school building collapsed last year in the earthquake. Suddenly, a retaining wall of an adjoining housing colony collapsed and buried part of the classroom. Of the 30 children inside, 26 were injured, while Anjana and her classmate, Kripa Rai did not survive.

“These little children came to us after the earthquake, seeking a safe place to live in,” said Ama Ghar’s Bonnie Ellison. “I feel sorry that they were not safe in the school.” Teachers remember Kripa Rai as a very polite girl who always greeted them with a smile. As always, she had been dropped off at the school that morning by her father, Rajendra Rai, who still has not come to terms with the loss.

“I sometimes feel my daughter is still alive,” he told us, eyes brimming with tears, “but she is gone. I urge the government to ensure that all school buildings are safe so no one else will have to lose their child like I did.”

The National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) estimates that about 20 per cent of the school buildings across the country need to be rebuilt or retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. More children did not die in last year’s earthquake only because it occurred on a Saturday, and although 33,000 classrooms were destroyed most of the students were safe. Next time we may not be so lucky.

In the wake of the 1 July tragedy, the Ministry of Education has formed a committee, led by Joint Secretary Dilli Rimal, to assess the vulnerability of school buildings nationwide. 

“This tragedy should be an eye-opener not just for the government but also for private school owners,” said ministry spokesman Hari Lamsal.  “They must ensure that children are in safe buildings.”

Read also:

Better climate for education, Kunda Dixit

A concrete future, Sonia Awale

Making schools safer, Bhrikuti Rai

Building back safer, Aparajita Acharya

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