Hired, fired, rehired

Om Astha Rai

One-and-a-half years after being fired for failing to speed up post-earthquake recovery, Sushil Gyewali is back as the CEO of National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) that was set up to oversee reconstruction after the 2015 earthquake.

The way Gyewali was hired, fired and re-hired shows how reconstruction has been a casualty of intense political rivalry in Nepal. He is the fifth NRA Chief in less than three years, and in that time only one-third of the 600,000 earthquake-destroyed houses have been rebuilt. Only half the schools have been reconstructed.

Gyewali was appointed by K P Oli of the UML when he was prime minister in 2016, but labeled “incompetent”and sacked by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal when the Maoist Chair was heading a coalition government with the Nepali Congress.

However, after the Maoists-UML merged into the Nepal Communist Party, won last year’s elections, and came to power again, Oli reinstated Gyewali at the NRA.

In an interview with Nepali Times this week, Gyewali said the charges about his under-performance were “politically-motivated”. He added: “They needed to criticise me because they wanted to overthrow the government that had appointed me. Earthquake reconstruction has always been held hostage to politics.”

However, with his NCP mentors now firmly in power, Gyewali may face fewer obstacles during this tenure. He is now backed by a strong and stable government with a two-third majority in Parliament, and just like the KP Oli government itself, he has no excuses to fail or under-perform this time.

The law allows the government to extend the NRA’s tenure by one year, but Gyewali says he is not even looking for an extension. “All earthquake-destroyed private homes will be rebuilt in the remaining two years, or even sooner,” he promised.

When he was first appointed as the NRA Chief, Gyewali rued the absence of locally-elected representatives of people. But now, all of Nepal’s 752 local levels have mayors or village heads. He says working with elected mayors and village chairs to accelerate post-earthquake reconstruction will make rebuilding much easier this time.

“The NRA will now also have a federal structure,” he said. “We will delegate more power and responsibility of reconstruction to municipalities and village councils. Each local government will have its own reconstruction unit, and the engineers deployed by the NRA will be based there.”

Under pressure to expedite reconstruction, the previous NRA leadership had given earthquake survivors a short deadline to rebuild as per approved designs. It had warned that those unable to meet the deadline will not be eligible for the rest of the Rs300,000 reconstruction grants. Thousands of families borrowed from local money lenders and cooperatives to meet the deadline. Many also built small, one-room houses that were not seismic resistant, just to meet the NRA condition.

The NRA has faced criticism for forcing earthquake survivors to build houses that do not meet their living requirements. Gyewali admitted the deadline added stress to earthquake survivors, but he said reconstruction would be too open-ended if there is no cut-off date to use housing grants. But he added: “We will now give a more realistic deadline.”

The NRA also faces a funding crisis. Nepal has not received all the money pledged by donors. At the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction on 25 June 2015, donors pledged more than $4.1 billion to rebuild houses, schools, health facilities and other infrastructure. But the actual pledge, excluding non-reconstruction commitments, was just $3.43 billion. Even that money has not been received in full.

As soon as he got back to his old office, Gyewali has been trying to find out how much there is in the kitty, and explore sources to meet the shortfall. Some are skeptical that the NRA will be able to finish reconstruction in the remaining two years, even though it is now headed by a CEO backed by a stable government.

They say it was a mistake to copy Pakistan’s model of reconstruction by setting up a separate agency because Nepal’s socio-political landscape is different. Pakistan was ruled by the Army when it was devastated by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2005, and houses were rebuilt swiftly under a general. Also, survivors were given sufficient reconstruction grants and did not have to borrow as they had to in Nepal.

Meanwhile, Nepal was in the throes of a polarised debate over the constitution when the earthquake struck on 25 April 2015. It was a foregone conclusion that reconstruction would face political obstacles, yet Nepal invited retired Pakistani Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmad to share his experience and this shaped the structure of the NRA.

Asked about this, Gyewali said: “Copying the Pakistan model was probably a mistake. But did anyone propose a better model?”

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