Security at the Biratnagar airport was tightened strictly following the hijacking of a Twinottor along with 3 million rupees Indian Currency it was carrying from Biratnagar to Kathmandu in 1972. That was the first hijacking in Nepal’s aviation history. As a response, immediately after the incidence, metal detectors were introduced at Biratnagar to check baggage. But amazingly, the security level at other airports of Janakpur and Nepalgunj did not change. Security personnel were still manually frisking the body at those places. Security at Biratnagar was taken seriously because the authorities reacted to what happened there and not at other airports because nothing had happened at those places, even though they were equally vulnerable to similar events.

The point I want to draw home is the government’s decision of limiting the height of the buildings to only two stories, which came as reaction to the devastating earthquake of April 25. It was the same administration that allowed construction of high rise apartments, many of which are more than 15 storied. The logic used was that the valley is already crowded with residential buildings and there is no choice but use the aerial space. The real estate business boomed in no time making space for the growth of numerous banks and many other financial institutions. The land value went sky-high, which on one side made it near impossible for people to buy a piece of land to build their own house and on the other encouraged people to buy apartments with its modern looking facilities. Building multistoried houses with 5 -7 storey became a lucrative investment sector. The majority of these high rises suffered heavy damages, while other tall buildings had large number of casualties. Approval of designs and quality of construction of these buildings has come under serious questions.

Now the government has stopped construction of any buildings until July. This might very well mean that it will issue new orders to seriously enforce the building codes, which was hardly complied with, and perhaps several other measures before giving permission to construct new buildings. The measures might include provisions from testing of soil of the construction site to approval of the design by qualified structural engineers. These would obviously be a welcome move to make safer houses in future, but most probably the story may not end that way.

A common saying in Nepal goes like this, jindagimaa yeuta ghar nabanaikana manchhe, manchhe hudaina (in Nepali, a man will not be a complete man until he builds a house in his life).  This simply means how complex is this undertaking.

Anyone willing to construct a house would have to first get the land registered in his/her name, which is done at the land revenue office. To get things done at the land revenue office, you have to get the services of a legal advisor because no matter how educated you are you won’t understand the paper works involved. While your legal advisor does the running, you keep standing for hours outside the office, and keep signing papers whenever required. And there is always something wrong with the paper. Again, don’t ask what is it that is ‘wrong’, but ask how can it be fixed? This simply means oiling the wheel. The amount depends on the size of your transaction. Generally it is 10-20 thousand rupees. If the ‘wrong’ is big the amount will go further up.

To save time you could hire an engineer side by side to design your building, which needs to be approved by the municipality authorities. It is better if you get some one from within the agency that does the approval, to design it. You spend some but save some hassle, particularly righting several ‘wrongs’.

The location of your land on the cadastral map has to be verified by the local municipality before your building design is approved. You go to the local office and request the staff to come to your site. First he tells you he is very busy and to come next day. When you go the next day, don’t get surprised if he isn’t in the office. On your third or fourth attempt you will catch him then he asks you if you got the car to go to the site. Then you hire a taxi and take the gentleman to the site. Offer him a good khaja. On your way back he will ask you to give him anywhere between 10 and 25 thousand rupees to issue the letter.

Once you have the verification of your land on the cadastral map, and the design of you dream building prepared by this qualified and registered engineer, submit it with due procedure for approval. The rule requires that your neighbors must state that they have no objection to your constructing building. It adds one more layer to your responsibility to get the notice to the neighbors and their no objection. Approval process may take anywhere around two months, if you are lucky and if you had established the right connections.

When your construction begins, the authority has to check at certain steps to ensure that you have followed the design and not deviated from it. Without his green signal you will not have permission to build further.  Since it is your own building and a lifetime dream coming true, you may want to change certain things as you proceed, but you can’t because the municipal authority is watching it. This is your another chance to correct the ‘wrong’.

So far there is no rule to specify quality standards of the construction material. But, in view of what we went through, quality of construction material may become an issue. However, instead of government making sure that only those materials that meet the quality standards are sold in the market, it will be your responsibility to ensure the quality. Once again you have the opportunity to bribe the authority to get quality clearance.

We are typically a reactive society. Like we did in the hijacking case we react to events very fast and often use neither any logic nor any analysis while making decisions. Government’s decision to ban construction until July has come as a knee-jerk reaction, and additional conditions will be imposed by then again perhaps without much home work.

Who would deny the need for stringent measures to ensure construction of earthquake resistant buildings, but will the government be able to ensure that at every stage of construction a commoner  can ask ‘what is wrong’ rather than saying ‘how can it be fixed’.  As long as the system in places keeps us in a position of fixing the fabricated ‘wrongs’, we will remain vulnerable to disasters.

With support from Irene Upadhya

Until next