Feature story

Lending a hand

The extensive relief and rehabilitation efforts of the Tata Trusts and the Tata group have provided much-needed succour to survivors of the 2015 Nepal earthquake

The year 2015 will remain etched in the collective psyche of Nepalis. It was a time of catastrophe as two horrifying earthquakes over a span of 20 days left the country in shambles and its people devastated.

The first quake, 7.8 in magnitude and with its epicentre 80km to the northwest of the capital Kathmandu, hit on April 25. This was followed by a second quake 17 days later, measuring 7.3 in magnitude and in the area between Kathmandu and Nepal’s border with China.

The two quakes left destruction all around, killing nearly 9,000 people and injuring three times as many. More than 600,000 structures in Kathmandu and nearby towns were either damaged or reduced to rubble and about 2.8 million people were rendered homeless. The total economic cost of the earthquakes was pegged close to $10 billion.

The Nepal calamity brought the Tata Trusts and the Tata group together in a well-calibrated effort to lend a hand to the stricken. This was the first time the Tatas had set out to organise relief measures in a country other than India, but that did not deter the team put in charge of relief and rehabilitation operations.

“The sheer extent of the catastrophe and the widespread destruction it caused required an immediate response, initially as part of rescue and relief efforts, and then to rehabilitate survivors,” says Arun Pandhi, director, programme implementation, at the Tata Trusts.

It helped that the Tatas had a disaster response framework in place. In 2014, a year before the Nepal quakes, a dedicated disaster management team had been set up as part of the Tata Sustainability Group (TSG), with the mandate to coordinate a unified Tata response to disasters. In times of disasters, this team helps coordinate the work undertaken by volunteers from different Tata companies.

Team for the task

The TSG disaster management team was among the first to reach Nepal in the wake of the quakes. Its mandate was three-fold: extend support to ensure wellbeing, organise the distribution of relief material and set up shelters for survivors.

The team assembled in Nepal and was soon neck-deep in work, distributing relief kits to the affected, providing trauma counselling to families and delivering wholesome food to prevent malnutrition and reduce the risk of disease. The food part was crucial.

“With roads and supply lines disrupted, there was a shortage of food material,” recalls Tam Lal Pokharel, area manager with the Trusts and a member of the disaster relief team. “Even where food was available, people were often forced to cook in unsafe conditions, close to open drains or garbage pits.”

The Trusts set up a community kitchen to provide food to the survivors in relief camps. For this they partnered the Bengaluru-headquartered non-profit, Akshaya Patra Foundation, which runs India’s largest midday meal programme. For effective local implementation, the Trusts roped in Sipradian Sahayata Sanstha, the corporate social responsibility arm of Sipradi Trading, the biggest distributor for Tata Motors’ vehicles in Nepal.

A huge kitchen in Kathmandu valley provided meals for more than 9,000 homeless families. Over time, the kitchen served in excess of 1.4 million meals to survivors living in 17 shelter camps set up in Bhaktapur and Kathmandu districts. The Trusts team ran the kitchen successfully for three months.

Running the kitchen was a tricky task and keeping the supply chain running the toughest challenge.

“Nepal was new territory for us and we could not entirely replicate what we knew from managing similar operations in India,” adds Mr Pokharel. “The food menu had to suit the Nepalese palate and local cooks had to be hired. In fact, local resources were the key for us.”

With immediate relief measures taken care of, the Trusts team moved to the next phase: rehabilitating the survivors. Sindhupalchok, among the districts worst affected by the quakes, was ground zero for this component of the endeavour, with the focus on rebuilding public infrastructure, specifically schools and healthcare centres.

Activity time at the Shree Marming School in Sindhupalchok district
Activity time at the Shree Marming School in Sindhupalchok district

Schools and health centres

Seven new quake-resistant school buildings have been constructed in Sindhupalchok, on sites that had been little more than debris. The new schools will provide a safe learning space to about 2,600 students and more than 10,000 individuals will benefit from the health centres. The team has also reconstructed eight health outposts, one in Sindhupalchok and seven in Dolakha.

Alongside the building of infrastructure, the Trusts also rolled out a water, sanitation and hygiene programme in the schools of Sindhupalchok to improve child health. The team also set up anganwadis (childcare centres) and libraries. “The intent was to provide a completely new set up for the children and to bring about change,” says Mr Pokharel.

It’s been over six years and the reconstruction efforts in Nepal are still continuing. “While designing the programme we estimated that three years would be sufficient to complete the targeted activities,” explains Mr Pokharel, “but approvals in Nepal and India took considerable time and there were delays because of monsoons and bad weather.”

Students at the Kupakanya secondary school in Balephi participate in an activity to promote good hygiene practices
Students at the Kupakanya secondary school in Balephi participate in an activity to promote good hygiene practices

Back to schooling

For Pema Lama, a standard IX student from Shree Marming Secondary School in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok district, going to class was something she had started to detest. It got worse after the 2015 earthquake brought down the school building. Pema and some 200 others like her had to study in makeshift classes put together with tin sheets and bamboo poles.

“Our school was destroyed and everything was lost, including our library and the science lab,” says Pema. Shortage of funds and space constraints meant only a bare minimum of classes were conducted. The fun part of school life — games and library sessions — was gone.

Close to four years after the quake, Pema and her schoolmates have finally got a new building to continue their education in, with Shree Marming among the seven schools reconstructed with support from the Tata Trusts.

The new school buildings are quake-resistant and they have separate toilets for boys and girls, hand-washing stations, waste collection pits, etc. The improved ambience has led to a rise in attendance. “Absenteeism is negligible now,” says Netra Prasad Timilsena, principal of the Shree Jalpadevi Secondary School.

The training sessions conducted as part of the water, sanitation and hygiene project have helped improve the general health of the students and the school staff. “I am confident that this programme will not only improve health but also lead to better learning outcomes for our students,” says Phul Bahadur Tamang, principal of the Shree Kupakanya Secondary School.

The Trusts’ rebuilding activities were initially concentrated in towns and urban areas and this meant that work in the remoter parts of the country took time to take off. That’s the reason the Trusts are extending their engagement in Nepal. With additional funding support, construction and education support activities in five additional schools are on the drawing board.

The relief and rehabilitation efforts have made a difference to the lives of those the Trusts have tried to support. For Niraj Timalsina, a student from Shree Kupakanya Secondary School in Sindhupalchok, the new school building and the improved education standards offer a chance to build a better life. “We feel comfortable and secure now,” he says.