Maitri Rebuilt: India’s Pioneering Role in Post-Disaster Housing and Resilience in Nepal and Beyond

Sub Title : Launched in the wake of the devastating Nepal earthquake, ‘Operation Maitri’ brings out several lessons in building disaster resilient infrastructure

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2023

Author : Krishna S. Vatsa

Page No. : 42

Category : Military Affairs

: September 22, 2023

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, India launched “Operation Maitri”, providing significant humanitarian assistance. India’s commitment of US$ 1 billion supported rebuilding 50,000 houses, schools, health facilities, and cultural heritage projects. The Nepal Housing Reconstruction Project (NHRP) facilitated housing reconstruction, emphasizing seismically safe and resilient houses. The program trained local professionals, prioritized women’s involvement, and established governance tools like Building Permit Studios and a toll-free helpline. Drawing from such experiences, India can assist global housing recovery, emphasizing resilience against increasing climate hazards.

After the devastating Gorkha earthquake of 2015 in Nepal, India acted swiftly to provide humanitarian assistance to its neighbouring nation on an unparalleled scale.  Launched as “Operation Maitri”, India deployed a large search and rescue team consisting of the Indian Army, Air Force, and other specialized groups. The team provided medical assistance and essential supplies along with their search and rescue support. The mission underscored India’s commitment to stand by its neighbouring country in times of crisis, reinforcing the strong bonds of friendship and cooperation that the two nations share.

India’s assistance extended beyond the immediate humanitarian assistance. India became one of the most significant partners in Nepal’s recovery and reconstruction efforts, when it committed assistance of US$ 1 billion, which consisted of US$ 250 million as a grant and US$ 750 million as a Line of Credit during the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction held in Kathmandu on 25 June 2015. Through this assistance, India supported the rebuilding of 50,000 houses in Nuwakot and Gorkha districts, reconstruction/retrofitting of 70 higher secondary schools and 2 libraries, 157 health facilities, and 28 cultural heritage sector projects in 13 districts across Nepal. It has been a massive reconstruction effort in a foreign country.

According to the Post-disaster Needs Assessment, which was conducted just after the earthquake, the housing sector suffered extensive destruction. Nearly 500,000 houses were destroyed, and more than 250,000 houses were partially damaged. The earthquake affected large areas, which included remote mountain villages, roadside market towns, heritage settlements, peri-urban neighbourhoods and emerging cities, and several dense neighbourhoods in the Kathmandu Valley.  Rebuilding houses emerged as one of the most important priorities after the earthquake.

The Government of Nepal set up a housing reconstruction programme, which was based on an owner-driven strategy. The house-owners would self-build their houses with the financial and technical assistance provided by the Government and its development partners. The strategy ensured that people across all socio-economic backgrounds engaged intensively with the process of reconstruction and built houses that have improved design, specifications, and seismic resistance. The programme drew its lessons from earthquake reconstruction programmes in India, which were largely owner-led.

Gorkha and Nuwakot districts were among the worst affected districts by the 2015 earthquake. In response, the Government of India launched the Nepal Housing Reconstruction Project (NHRP) under which it collaborated with two UN agencies—UNDP and UNOPS—to aid housing reconstruction in these districts. With a focus on socio-economic facilitation for the affected households, UNDP spearheaded the reconstruction of 26,912 houses in Gorkha, while UNOPS took charge of rebuilding 23,088 homes in Nuwakot. Initiated in 2018, this program spanned three years, successfully providing support for rebuilding efforts in these two devastated districts.

The NHRP recognized that while the families take the responsibility for rebuilding their houses, they need comprehensive assistance to construct seismically safe and resilient houses. Such assistance included access to finance, building materials, technology, and land. The provision of these inputs enabled families to undertake reconstruction. Socio-technical facilitation also included the deployment of skilled engineers, architects, masons, and community facilitators directly at the household level.

A group of Indian NGOs came together as the Owner-driven Reconstruction Collaborative (ODRC) and participated in the rebuilding effort in Nepal under the NHRP in Gorkha in partnership with UNDP. They took responsibility for socio-technical facilities at the village level through orienting and training Nepali engineers and masons. The ODRC focused on technical assistance and capacity-building, which were central to the owner-driven approach. They worked at the level of families, helping them in designing their homes, offering advice on safe construction practices, and ensuring the structures were earthquake-resistant. The objective was not just to rebuild but to build back better and safer. The ODRC also organized training programmes for engineers, masons, and construction workers, which created the pool of skills for the reconstruction effort and enhanced local employment and involvement during implementation.

By the end of 2021, the homeowners in both districts successfully completed the reconstruction of 50,000 homes.  They received all the tranches of financial assistance as well as necessary assistance through the mobilization of materials, labour, and technical guidance. Approximately 8000 most vulnerable and poor who found it difficult to rebuild with financial assistance were identified and supported further with interest-free loans through revolving funds created at the municipality level. An intense social mobilization distinguished the reconstruction effort.

The NHRP prioritized women’s involvement across all stages, from policy formulation to construction on the ground. Women staff also participated in diverse roles in project management and implementation. In addition, more than 500 women were trained as masons, establishing a strong contingent of masons in these two districts.

Among the important innovations, the NHRP set up the Building Permit Studios in the municipalities of Gorkha and Palungtar, which have been pivotal in assisting earthquake-affected homeowners. By offering regular services, these studios empowered these homeowners to meet necessary building standards and navigate administrative procedures within the municipal jurisdictions. They produced approximately 4,000 municipal set drawings, facilitating building permits for beneficiaries in both Gorkha and Palungtar municipalities. These facilities were reinforced through an IEC campaign which included socio-cultural events, mobile technology clinic campaigns, radio programme broadcasts, and the development and distribution of IEC print materials and exposure visits. These studios also enabled the municipalities to continue with the building permit system beyond the reconstruction programme by enhancing their staff capacity and incorporating these services within the normal municipal system.

To improve the governance of the overall reconstruction programme at the national level and make it people-centric, the NHRP helped the National Reconstruction Authority of Nepal Government to set up a toll-free reconstruction helpline. This enabled the community to directly communicate their grievances, suggestions, and needs to the Government. More than 45000 calls were received by NRA and followed up to ensure redressal of various issues related to inclusion, timely assistance, approval, technical guidance, and inter-departmental coordination.

The programme, which started a little late in 2018, was concluded with a large participation of earthquake-affected families and local governments. Its implementation highlighted several innovations in owner-driven housing and improved the seismic resistance of the houses. The Government of Nepal acknowledged the scale as well as the quality of housing reconstruction in these two districts.

Though India’s support for housing reconstruction was extended on a significant scale in Nepal, such housing assistance was also provided to neighbouring countries in the past. India reached out to Bangladesh with support for undertaking the reconstruction of houses after cyclone Sidr in 2007. Following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009, India was among the major international actors that provided significant assistance for post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka. A prominent component of India’s assistance was the housing sector. The Government of India committed to building 50,000 houses for war-affected and internally displaced persons, primarily in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, which was implemented by UN-Habitat.

Drawing on these experiences in South Asia, there is a strong case for setting up a technical facility through which India can assist developing countries in many parts of the world with housing recovery. Besides the financial support to the recipient countries, this technical facility could provide guidance on the governance of post-disaster recovery programs, build capacities of institutions and other stakeholders, facilitate collaboration between resource institutions, and advise on policy formulation and socio-technical facilitation. Along with the Coalition for Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), such a facility can provide a wide range of support for recovery and reconstruction. As climate hazards are becoming more frequent, India can provide multi-pronged support to the countries in their efforts to build resilience in the housing and infrastructure sectors.