Pakistan

The unending saga of reconstruction

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TARIQ NAQASH

Abid Bashir is an 8th grade student in a state-run boys’ high school in Batangi village, some 58 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad in district Hattian Bala. Since he can remember, he has been studying under the open sky. He is not alone; some 450 other students learn with him.

When the harshness of the weather becomes intolerable, they take shelter beneath tattered tents, which make up their “school building”.

“It is difficult to concentrate on studies in this environment, particularly when the weather is extremely hot or cold,” he says, as fellow students nod in agreement.

However, this is not the lot of the 450 plus Batangi students alone. In Muzaffarabad, the state capital, many schools function in similar conditions.

“For the past several years, we have been waiting for the completion of our school building,” laments Saiqa Shafiq, a 9th grade student in the Government Girls Higher Secondary School Gojra.

“Now that it’s the tenth anniversary of the earthquake, the media will be here again to report on our plight for a few moments. Later, we will be forgotten again,” she fumes.

According to Mohammad Zaffar Khan, secretary State Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (Serra), at least 150,000 students in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) are compelled to study under the open sky, due to missing or incomplete buildings.

Rebuilding schools

Schoolchildren were a major casualty of the 2005 earthquake, as it levelled, partly or completely, as many as 2,792 educational institutions in AJK.

Of those flattened institutions, donors pledged to rebuild 402 — 309 were to be rebuilt by the Asian Development Bank-funded Earthquake Emergency Assistance Project (EEAP); 201 by the World Bank-funded Earthquake Additional Financing Project (EAFP); 35 (mostly colleges) by the Saudi Fund Development and Kuwait Fund (SFD&KF) and the remaining, 1,845, by government of Pakistan (GoP) funding.

The GoP-funding is the term used for the money Islamabad received from the international community as donation/soft loan to exclusively spend in the quake hit areas of AJK and neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

This money was to be channeled through the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (Erra).

However, ten years down the line, only 1,277 educational institutions buildings have been completed in AJK. Of the rest, 833 are still under-construction and 682 are yet to be initiated.

Officials say the 806 under-construction and 653 yet-to-be initiated projects fall under GoP-funding. Only 29 of yet-to-be initiated projects in the education sector are to be built by donors, directly. Unfortunately, under-construction projects are also progressing at a snail’s pace. The reason, according to the government, is an unsteady cash flow.

“A severe financial crunch has virtually paralysed the reconstruction programme since April 2010,” admits Serra Secretary Zaffar Khan.

In 2011-12, the requirement for the ongoing and new projects in AJK was estimated at Rs 32.328 billion, but only Rs 5.38 billion was provided.

Next year, AJK got Rs 3.564 billion against its demand of Rs 16.02 billion. In 2013-14 it got Rs 1.512 billion against Rs 14 billion and in 2014-15 it was given Rs 714 million against Rs 10.75 billion.

In the current fiscal year, the minimum requirement was estimated at Rs 6.95 billion, but so far only Rs 182 million have been released to AJK.

The projects in sectors other than education numbered 4,938, of which 3,928 have been completed and handed over to the concerned departments. Of the remaining projects, 778 are said to be under-construction while 232 are yet to be initiated, most of them in the livelihoods sector.

In 2011, the Pakistan Peoples Party formed its government in AJK, three years after assuming power in Pakistan. Reconstruction related officials here heaved a sigh of relief, assuming that the new government will ensure reconstruction funds.

However, the expectations were soon shattered. “In fact the PPP government squeezed the funds further,” complains an official, on the condition of anonymity.

“If we demanded Rs 100, we were given Rs 10. How could the targets be achieved?” There have long been allegations that the reconstruction programme in AJK ran into snags because the Peoples Party led central government diverted Rs 56 billion meant for the purpose to other heads.

In March 2012, PML-N AJK chapter president Raja Farooq Haider publicly levelled this allegation against the PPP government.

The financial constraints did not ease with the change of government in Islamabad.

In November last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced Rs 4 billion for the completion of the under-construction projects, particularly in the education sector.

Following the announcement, Serra selected 500 under-construction schools for quick completion. Contractors were persuaded to resume work.

However, so far, no funds have been released and the trust deficit has worsened. “Now the contractors are not ready to believe us,” one official says.

But the woes of Serra are not the entire story.

Erra runs into financial troubles

The AJK Urban Development Programme (UDP) runs in addition to the projects executed by Serra. The former is a vertical programme being directly executed by Erra and the federal government in Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Rawalakot.

This programme was launched in 2009; it was funded by $300m provided by China’s AXIM Bank and $53m by the government of Pakistan.

This sum was to be spent in the Muzaffarabad City Development Programme ($190.62m), the Bagh City Development Programme ($123.55m) and the Rawalakot City Development Programme ($38.83m).

Of the 104 projects, envisaged under MCDP, BCDP and RCDP (53 under BCDP and 18 under RCDP), 46 (25, 13 and 8 respectively) have been completed. In Bagh and Rawalakot, work on 39 and 18 is in progress. In Muzaffarabad, work on 27 projects is under progress, including the president’s and prime minister’s houses.

However, many projects – 110 according to a Serra document - are yet to be initiated.

“So far $140m have been spent under the MCDP… We have given preference to important projects,” says MCDP project director Brig (retired) Riaz Noor. He admits that the UDP has been facing delays due to a delay in the release of the funding committed by the federal government. The truth is that even the ones initiated are progressing slowly.

For example, under the MCDP, 275-acres were acquired some 10 or so kilometres south of Muzaffarabad, for establishing two satellite towns, for earthquake survivors.

Ten years on, these towns are still not ready for allotment. Development work is likely to consume another six months, according to Asad Habib Awan, chairman Development Authority Muzaffarabad (DAM), who nevertheless claims that his institution will start the allotment process soon.

Zahid Amin, a leading civil society activist, has been protesting the delay of projects under the MCDP. “It is unfair to deprive Muzaffarabad of the projects that were promised to its people,” he says.

Mr Noor says, however, that some “not-so-pressing” projects have been delayed for multiple reasons, mainly the high cost of land acquisition.

After the earthquake, it was decided that AJK would be given Rs 4.18 billion for acquisition of land for various projects under the UDP. However, it got only Rs 2 billion. Mr Amin also points out that the Chinese loan expires in December 2015, after which no one will bother with the unfinished projects.

But Mr Noor shrugs off these fears, in the hope that the loan’s term will be extended to December 2016.

Grievances notwithstanding, many believe that the rebuilt infrastructure, particularly the buildings, is impressive. “In all constructions in public sector, building codes and guidelines have been strictly followed,” says Zaffar Khan.

In private sector too, building codes have mostly been followed in new constructions, particularly in cases where government grants were involved.

But with time, as complacency set in, newer construction has been carried out without adhering to rules. And the civic bodies have turned a blind eye.

Mr Amin, who has headed both Muzaffarabad Municipal Corporation and DAM, points out that none of the civic bodies has a structural engineer to take care of this foremost task. “A city that sits on fault lines cannot afford to turn a blind eye to violations of the building codes,” he maintains.

Serra officials also acknowledge that there have been complaints of non-compliance to seismic resistance standards. Worse still are the rural areas where there are no checks and balances. Asad Habib Awan, Chairman DAM, asserts that whenever they come to know about any unlawful construction, they take requisite action, swiftly.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2015

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