Class struggle

Along the lush green ridgeline on the border between Lalitpur and Kavre is Kali Devi Secondary School, which was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake and has now been partially rebuilt.

The classrooms are more sturdy, and have two exit doors that open outward, the staircases are wider, there is improved ventilation and the school is wheelchair friendly.

Principal Deo Narayan Chaudhary shows visitors around proudly. “See, we even have this verandah from where students can enjoy the beautiful view.” Indeed, the scenery is stunning with Kathmandu Valley on one side and the rolling green hills on the other.

When the earthquake struck shortly before noon on 25 April 2015, some 7,000 schools and 26,000 classrooms were destroyed across Central Nepal. Luckily, since it was Saturday, schools were closed and fatalities among students was not as high as in collapsed schools in Pakistan in 2005 or Sichuan in 2008.

In Kali Devi Secondary School's tenth grade, there are only six students. Pics: Monika Deupala

The 2015 earthquake was a warning to rebuild and retrofit schools not just in the 14 districts affected, but in the rest of Nepal as well. The earthquake was also an opportunity to rebuild and improve basic education infrastructure all over the country.

Indeed, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) came out with earthquake-resistant school building designs, and this Kali Devi Secondary School was one of them. District Level Project Implementation Units (DLPIU) were required to ensure that all schools follow the design criteria.

“Our job is to ensure buildings are made according to design, and quality is maintained. Our engineers are assigned to be present when foundations are laid and the concrete is poured,” explains Prakash Maharjan of the Lalitpur DLPUI.

But in spite of model schools like this, and even though school reconstruction has been faster than reconstruction of homes, only 3,785 of the schools damaged or destroyed have been fully rebuilt. The reason, as with everything else, is official bureaucracy, lethargy and corruption.

Many of the schools ran out of money, and look like half-completed construction sites, and should technically be off limits to children. At the Saraswati Secondary School in Lele, a teacher points to the steel rods jutting out of the ceiling of an older retrofitted building, and complains: “There is still a lot to do, but unless some donor comes along, I do not really see the government following up and ensuring completion.”

Federalism and decentralisation should have speeded up school reconstruction, but confusion over jurisdiction and budget has actually slowed things down. Earlier, all budget-dispensing happened through the DLPIU, but with districts now defunct, no one is sure who is responsible. The new building in Lele should have been completed last month, but money ran out.

Lalitpur’s Kali Devi Secondary School has a well-appointed new building, but soil erosion poses a risk to a part of the school grounds, there is no electricity, water or adequate sanitation facilities. A newly built compound wall was destroyed by floods.

In one classroom, Grade 2 and 3 was grouped together and taught by the same arithmetic teacher, Bishnu Raj Thala. “I teach the same topic to both the grades, but give slightly harder questions to Grade 3 and slightly easier ones to Grade 2,” Thala explains.

The other problem has been lack of students. Many families migrated to the cities after the earthquake and have not returned. In Grade 10 of Kali Devi School, there are only five students. Government schools especially have fewer students because besides outmigration, parents are also sending their children to private schools.

“Half our students dropped out because of the difficulties in the Temporary Learning Centres after the earthquake, it is difficult to get them to come back,” Principal Chaudhary says.

The other looming crisis concerns western Nepal which has not seen a major earthquake for 700 years and seismologists have warned that a catastrophic quake there is overdue. Experts say schools in western Nepal need to be urgently retrofitted.

Explains Narayan Marasini at the National Society for Earthquake Technology Nepal (NSET): “A lot of the focus has been given to Eastern and Central Nepal following the earthquakes in 1988 and 2015, we now need to tackle the challenges in the West.”

Recognising this problem, the British aid agency DFID has launched a Safer Schools Project which aims to retrofit and reconstruct schools in Western Nepal.

“We chose this region to work with because there is high vulnerability and low awareness on coping mechanisms,” says Eleanor Bainbridge of DFID.

Indeed, 2015 proved that strengthening school buildings is important in saving lives in a disaster. None of the schools that had been retrofitted by NSET came down in the earthquake, and many of the schools that crumbled had not been strengthened.

The answer is not another building code, but implementing the 1994 guidelines. If the lessons from the Gorkha Earthquake of 2015 are heeded, it could save a lot of children’s lives in a future disaster.

Community committees

In schools where the government funded reconstruction, the main responsibility of the process was given to School Management Committees (SMCs), whose members include educationists, social workers, or village elders.

“This is a mechanism to involve the community in rebuilding schools,” Prakash Maharjan from the Lalitpur District Level Project Implementation Units (DLPIU) says. Engineers supervise design-adherence and quality control periodically, but SMCs are the backbone of the process: from hiring contractors to selecting material, they oversee all work.

“Without support from the SMC, reconstruction would not be possible,” adds principal Deo Narayan Chaudhary (pictured right) of Kali Devi Secondary School in Kavre where the committee took an active part in extending the road leading to the school to make transportation of construction material easier.

In fact, across the 14 districts affected by the 2015 earthquake the schools that have been rebuilt are the ones where the community committees are most involved. “Villages are close knit communities where success is also a matter of pride for the entire village.” Maharjan explains.

Moreover, schools also function as a nucleus of awareness for the entire entire community. Which is why Safer Schools Project in western Nepal seeks to spread awareness about retrofitting and earthquake safety through schools.

The project is jointly undertaken by the British aid agency DFID and the Nepal Society for Earthquake Technology Nepal (NSET) in western Nepal, where the next big earthquake is overdue.

Says Eleanor Bainbridge of DFID: "Schools are excellent starting points to reach out to the rest of the community." Narayan Marasini of NSET concurs: “When we conducted retrofitting training, we did it in close coordination with SMCs, and villagers also started to take interest to earthquake resistant building techniques.”

Beyond this, the role of elected local governments is another key component. Says Sushil Khanal, a teacher at Lalitpur’s Saraswati Secondary School: “Much of the future investment in schools depends on how local leaders perceive education. If they do not understand the importance of schools, things get difficult.”

Read also:

Lesson still to be learnt, Sonia Awale

Keeping children in classrooms, Sahina Shrestha