On 22nd May we went to Dudhpokhari VDC (Wards 1 & 2) in Dolakha, one of the districts worst hit by the recent quakes. Nearly all the houses in Dudhpokhari–1 &2 were destroyed but luckily there were no casualties. We distributed corrugated tin sheets to people who were all living in tents or cowsheds. The tin sheets were provided at the request of the VDC secretary of Dudhpokhari. He had requested 750 bundles to cover the entire VDC, but given our limited funds and the shortage of tin sheets in the market, we were only able to provide 100 bundles (800 pieces).
We left Kathmandu early in the morning, around quarter past five, and reached Mude around half past nine. There we met VDC secretary Chandra Mohan Singh (originally from Mahottari) and constable Rasindra Yadav, both of whom would accompany us to Dudhpokhari. Chandra Mohan was carrying NPR 3 lakhs in cash to distribute in the village and had invited Rasindra for security reasons. Each household was to receive NPR 2000 as immediate cash relief (as part of the larger compensation they are meant to receive from government later). At the district level, we were told Dolakha has been allocated NPR 11 crores, of which 5–6 crores were collected from District Development Committee (DDC) staff, who were required to donate a small percent of their monthly salaries, and the rest was provided by the DDC. In addition, the government has pledged to provide each household NPR 15,000 for buying tin sheets. However, as this process has not begun yet, the VDC secretary has been trying to obtain tin sheets from volunteer groups and organizations. Monsoon is round the corner and people are worried the tarps will not withstand heavy rains. Chandra Mohan’s persistence is paying off it seems. International Nepal Fellowship has agreed to provide 200 more bundles. He has even convinced Hulas steel company to provide enough tin sheets to any donor willing to purchase them for Dudhpokhari VDC.
Also at the request of the VDC secretary we provided a blood pressure measuring device, two sets of stethoscopes and a box of medicines for the local health post. The approximate total cost of the relief trip was NPR 486,051 (approximately USD 4,792).
It was good to see the VDC secretary working hard to bring adequate relief in his VDC. This was not the case in some of the other places we visited. In Kalyanpur VDC, Nuwakot, for instance, the locals had complained that the VDC secretary had fled immediately after the big earthquake struck. It seems the role of local level administrators varies across VDCs and wards and we can only judge their performance on a case-by-case basis. In Rasuwa we were told the Chief District Officer (CDO) has been relatively engaged at the district level, while in Dolakha the Local Development Officer (LDO) has been far more active than the CDO, according to Chandra Mohan. He said the political parties sometimes come and distribute relief in areas that concern them, but without coordinating with the VDC. As for the representatives of the All Party Mechanism, they don’t always agree on which village to prioritize but eventually come around, he said. Apparently there had been some debate over which ward numbers should receive the 100 tin sheets we had brought, and they finally agreed to split them between Ward 1 and Ward 2.
From Mude to Dudhpokhari, it was a rough three-hour ride on a bumpy dirt road. Luckily it didn’t rain. We waited for a while in a large open space as the villagers gathered for the distribution. The households that were to receive the sheets were already on the list prepared by the VDC secretary in coordination with community members. Fifty households from Ward 1 and fifty from Ward 2 were included in the list, while the remaining households were told they would receive them in the next round of distribution. We heard some people grumbling and were concerned that the most needy might have been left out, but the community members told us that was not the case. We had to take them for their word. In an ideal situation, we would have walked down to the settlement, inspected each and every house, talked to the household members and only then decided whom to prioritize in the first round, but we did not have enough time. This is one of the several limitations of a relief effort such as ours. We did, however, ask whether there were Dalits in the village, and on finding out there were two Dalit households, asked our community members to ensure they received the sheets.
Not everyone in the village looked entirely destitute. I spoke to several new mothers to see if they might need immediate cash relief (through Nehi Fund) but realized they were doing O.K. compared to many women I have met in other villages. Nearly every single one of them had their husband working in India, Malaysia or the Gulf. They said food was not a problem for them. But all their houses had become uninhabitable and they urgently needed tin roofing sheets to build medium-term shelters. We gave each of them a new mother supplies bag through Nehi Fund but saved the cash for more needy women in other villages. It was only when distribution was coming to an end that we met a woman whose situation seemed particularly dire. She showed up all of a sudden, completely out of breath, and asked us for water. It turned out she had come running up the hill because she was afraid she was going to miss her share of the relief. Her name was Rita Tamang and she had three children; the youngest was nine months old. She said her husband was always drunk and that they had not received relief materials earlier because he had been lying drunk when it was time for distribution and she did not even know about it. We talked to her for a while, and realizing how difficult her circumstances were, gave her a bag of new mother supplies and a cash gift of NPR 5000 to buy some essentials. Who knows we may have missed her if she hadn’t made it in time.
This trip left us feeling that maybe the biggest challenge in providing relief (or any aid for that matter) is not how to avoid duplication as such (a poor family getting two sacks of rice instead of one can’t harm anyone) but to reach those most in need. The most vulnerable members of a community – marginalized castes, women, the elderly – are less vocal and less informed and hence prone to being left out unless we proactively seek them out. But this obviously involves extra work and the convenient thing to do is give to those who show up before us and can articulate their needs.
Initially people in the village thought we were representatives of some organization doing their duty, but when I explained that the sheets had been bought with funds sent by our family and friends from across the world, they seemed very touched. Many of them came up to us and asked us to convey their heartfelt thanks to all of you.