As I drive up the ragged and broken road, in the convoy of RI President K R Ravindran and spouse Vanathy (yes, it’s a convoy complete with a swanky car with a white Government plate and a jeep packed with State security men guarding him), whose car is followed by one transporting RI Director Manoj Desai and spouse Sharmishtha, the desolate landscape, houses razed to the ground and rubble still dotting the landscape, revive the horrors of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Just four minutes before noon on April 25, 2015, the tiny Himalayan nation, which lies in a vulnerable seismic zone and has suffered many earthquakes over the years, experienced yet another devastating one. Measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, it lasted for an agonising 56 seconds battering several areas, including Kathmandu. Powerful enough to turn solid buildings into rubble and dust, it was followed by a series of aftershocks, all measuring above the scale of 4, and petrifying the people of the entire nation. The quake and its aftershocks have affected 31 of Nepal’s 75 districts, of which 14 have been the worst affected, says DG Keshav Kunwar of District 3292 (Nepal and Bhutan).
As usual in natural disasters, and as happened after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, the tsunami, Uttarakashi flash floods, etc, Rotarians were among the first to swing into action. In February, Ravindran and Desai were visiting Nepal to take stock of the reconstruction work being done by Rotarians.
We don’t want passive beneficiaries; we want the villagers to feel the rhythm of development and they are totally involved in building the houses.
DG Kunwar said the District has put together an elaborate plan to build 1,000-plus houses and 140 primary schools with water and sanitation facilities; this would take 5 years to complete. The project will be implemented by the Earthquake Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Programme (ERRRP), chaired by PDG Tirtha Man Sakya. DG Kunwar, IPDG Rabindra Kumar Piya, DGE Jaya Shah and DGN Sanjay Giri are its ex-officio members.
What was heartening to see was the passionate involvement of young women Rotarians in the reconstruction task in Manegaon village, about 55 km from Kathmandu, that we visited. Here the Rotary Club of Jawalakhel Manjushree has swung into action and got the paperwork done — Government sanctions and documentation are required to rebuild every house — for building 55 homes. This club has young members, 90 per cent female, and its male members worked shoulder to shoulder, and the club was encouraged by the District.
The village has 371 inhabitants, and the club has hooked up with the NGO Volunteer for Change (VFC) to implement the project being financed by D 3292. VFC is an international volunteering platform based in Nepal and provides different kinds of internship and volunteering opportunities to youngsters in developmental activities. Since VFC works closely with local organisations, its fit with Rotary was perfect.
In this village, we met Bushita, a dynamic VFC representative, who has two little girls Sonu and Dolma hanging by her side … they are so fond of her they just follow her wherever she goes. These girls are victims of a common problem in this part of Nepal … addiction to rice wine. Like many women in the village, their mother too made rice wine, consumed more than necessary and became addicted to it. One fine day she simply disappeared from the village, and the girls now stay with their grandmother and are in Class 3 and 1. While Sonu wants to become a math teacher, Dolma wants to mother the neighbour’s child. “And when she gets her own daughter, she wants to name her after Nepal’s famous actress Rekha Thapa,” smiles Bushita.
Pramoda Shah, President of the Club, explains to Ravindran and Desai details of how they have envisioned Manegaon’s development as a model village. VFC’s Anand Missra, who has now joined the club, was instrumental in the design and other components.
Young girls have their bath early mornings in the padheros or water bodies and are vulnerable. So we’ll provide covered washrooms for them.
The idea is to make it a replicable model taking care of the entire needs of the community apart from housing, such as water and sanitation, agriculture, microfinance, and so on. With support from the District, 55 pucca homes, each about 400 sq ft, will be built. The total cost of the project is about NR 3.5 crore to be funded by D 3292, and the three houses that we saw have been built in just 20 days. “We’ve gone beyond our means and used better material than that prescribed by the government to give them quality homes,” Bushita adds. The houses look neat and robust and stand out in their quality compared to many ramshackle structures around the village.
Inspecting the three ready houses, Desai, who had worked closely in the rebuilding by Rotarians of 11 villages and 142 schools after the Kutch earthquake in 2001, complimented the women Rotarians for a good job. Later, he told Rotary News, “In earthquake-prone regions, the basic rule is always to go in for a sloping roof, so that the house owners cannot build additional floors as the need comes up and families grow. In Gujarat we did these sloping roofs in concrete, but here the cost doesn’t allow it so they have tin roofs, but the houses are structurally stable, which is important.”
On what kind of suffering they saw when they first visited the village, Pramoda says, “Oh God, all the houses in the village had been flattened, and the people were living under tarpaulin.”
Bushita explains that for integrated development of the village, they plan to be here for at least three years. “As we don’t want passive beneficiaries but want the villagers to feel the rhythm of development, they are totally involved in building the houses.”
In Majhigaon, where fishing folk live, Interactors and Rotaractors are working together with a Thai-Nepali association to build 47 houses.
The villagers don’t have a steady source of income and no irrigation systems so they rely on the monsoon for farming. “The idea is to have compassion with development, so we are planning a village livestock bank here, have started planting fruit orchards so that the women can make jams and pickles and we hope that this will replace the traditional rice wine making from which women get petty cash.” Apart from addiction. She adds that there are already pear and peach trees in the village, so the fruit orchards planted and harvested through modern agri methods will enhance the villagers’ income.
We saw a brick making machine which is deftly being used by the villagers to make hollow bricks for their homes using cement, sand and stone dust.
In Nepal’s villages, the toilets are never a part of the house, but built outside, so this project also would do that. But more important, villages such as Manegaon have a common and traditional water source called padhero. This is a public washing area and is open “so girls and young women get up very early in the morning to have their bath, and there are safety issues involved. So we want to create covered and secure washrooms for them,” she adds. Also on the cards is provision of solar energy, a good water supply and sewerage system, etc. “Ultimately we want it to become a model Rotary village.”
When she talked about plans to provide soft loans to the villagers, President Ravi advised the group to charge some interest for the small enterprises to be set up through these loans, “otherwise your capital will erode in no time. Grameen Bank of Bangladesh is a model you need to study as it is successful and they do not give interest-free loans.”
On the Rotarians’ plans to make this a model village, he said, “This kind of work has been done elsewhere too, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Please go and study such village projects which have been done elsewhere. Because as you start working, practical problems will crop up and you should know how to deal with them.”
RI Director Desai said that his own club (RC Baroda Metro) has done such a model in the village called Katarvad near Baroda, which had been covered by Rotary News (December 2015). He invited members of RC Jawalakhel Manjushree to visit this village and study the different socio economic projects, particularly modern farming techniques, that have been initiated in this tribal village in Gujarat.
Ravindran appreciated the details of the project cost, the money collected and spent being put up on the VFC and the District website so there was complete transparency. He advised them to break up the costing of various components — housing, health and sanitation, agriculture, funding of small businesses, etc into different components, and then approach donors to finance it. “But do give them credit for it.”
Also, he added, they should find some funds to do up the village with decent roads, a park, etc. Once such a complete model is created, it is easier to raise funds showing potential donors how the project would finally shape up.
DGE Jaya Shah said, “I’m happy these young Rotarians came out with a definite plan and went to the government to ensure that everything was legal.” Kunwar adds that they were encouraged and supported by the District, and in 20 days, had already built three houses!
PDG Sakya said that work had already been started in three villages and “we are preparing the profile of nine other villages/clusters for which appropriate approval has to be taken from the Government. In each cluster, the policy of D 3292 is to put up 50-100 houses.”
Apart from the 55 houses in Manegaon, 47 have been built in Majhigaon of Sindhupalchowk district and 73 in Charuberi of Kavre district are under construction. “In each village we are seeking active participation of the community through labour and other available resources because the people should not feel they’re getting charity from Rotary, but a sense of ownership because they’re themselves building the houses,” says Sakya.
Transparency and proper accounting standards are a must, because Rotary’s image is at stake.
– RI President Ravindran
DG Kunwar said in all 1,000-plus houses need to be built and that is a colossal task, so the District has formulated ERRRP with a Steering Committee and seven sub-committees for various tasks. Help after the earthquake had come from all over the world, and “PRID Shekhar Mehta representing Rotary India was among the first to respond with emergency relief materials.”
Sakya said in Majhigaon, which is populated by fishermen who fish in the small river there, there was a big problem of alcohol addiction. “In that place, Interactors and Rotaractors are working together with a Thai-Nepali association from Thailand, which is raising half the funds to build 47 houses.” Kunwar adds that at first they approached Rotary for building temporary shelters but we said we want only permanent houses and signed a 50:50 MoU.
These houses have been built with hollow bricks made of cement and stone dust, and the villagers were totally involved in the project. “They cleared the debris, we just gave them iron rods, steel and bricks and they built the houses themselves under the supervision of Interactor and Rotaractor engineers! The project is now complete, but we could not take President Ravindran there as it takes three hours to reach. But PRID Yash Pal Das, who is involved from RI for our reconstruction work, has visited the place.”
Similarly, in Charuberi village, where all the 73 houses were razed to the ground, RC Dhulikhel, RC Kavre-Banepa, etc have come together to rebuild the houses, again with support from D 3292. “There too we will give the material and the community will build the houses; we’ve trained them how to make the bricks and make their homes earthquake-proof.” With help from an Australian Rotary club, a training course has been held for carpenters and masons.
DG Kunwar said the 1,000 houses will cost $4.5–5 million. Along with 140 primary schools — furniture, computers, books, water and sanitation — the cost would go up to $8-9 million. “For this we are working with our partners from all over the world. For the 140 schools we’ve signed an MoU with the Federation of the Nepal Chambers of Commerce and Industry, who will be responsible for the civil works. Ravindran assured the DG and the Rotarians of D 3292 that “the money will come. Yes, a $9 million project is big but not impossible because we have done it in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. We raised $12 million in 10 months, and you can do it too.” But transparency and proper accounting standards were a must, because the image of Rotary as an organisation was at stake.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat