Insurance claims

It’s been seven whole months since the 18th September earthquake. But many of the earthquake victims, including all the victims in my constituency, have still not receive their insurance claims in spite of the Home Minister’s assurances during the eighth session of the Parliament. So I felt compelled to send this letter yesterday.

 

Indignity

Self-help

Last week, I reported to the National Assembly that, even four months after the September 18 earthquake, the victims of the earthquake still didn’t know what assistance to expect from the government. The government had, to be sure, provided corrugated iron sheets to some of the victims. And more importantly, the army, at His Majesty the King’s command, had built temporary houses for the victims.

But the victims have not been able to start working on their houses. Most of them have not begun to repair the damages, or to rebuild their houses. They have not been able to do so, because the government’s assessment of the damages has been slow and inconsistent. As a result, most of the victims have not received their insurance claims, and none of them seem to know if they can expect further assistance from the government.

So I questioned the government for not having a proper system in place to respond to natural disasters, a system that provides meaningful relief and offers adequate support for reconstruction.

And I criticized them for distributing “dignity bags” when it was quite clear that the victims didn’t need them. The earthquake had damaged thousands of houses. But thankfully, virtually none of them were razed to the ground. As such, the victims could enter their houses to retrieve their belongings as and when they wished. That’s why they didn’t really need the blankets, clothes, pots and pans, and plates and mugs that the dignity bags provided. What they desperately wanted is proper assessment of the damages, timely insurance payments, and a go-ahead to rebuild their houses.

The Home Minister, naturally, claimed that the government’s response to the disaster had been adequate, and that they were doing enough to help the earthquake victims. He also claimed that the dignity bags were useful.

But if the dignity bags are useful, if that’s what the victims need, why has the government not collected them from the RENEW offices? In fact, why did the government ask for them in the first place?

I can think of one reason: the government does not have a proper understanding of the ground realities. Given the nature of the disaster, the victims of the earthquake don’t need dignity bags. What they desperately need is the government to finalise its assessment – they want to receive their insurance claims; they want to know if the government will provide any additional support; and they want to start rebuilding their houses.

Home is where the hurt is

Waiting to be seen

The prime minister was in New York when the September 18 earthquake struck. He’d left Bhutan on 12th September to address the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly on 23rd September.

Most heads of government would have rushed home if, during their absence, an earthquake that hit their country caused widespread destruction. Our PM did not. He chose to stay on in New York. And from there, instead of returning home, he chose to go straight to Tokyo to address the 24th Congress of Architecture on 28th September, and then to Kolkata to meet the chief minister and to attend a Buddhist society meeting.

The PM eventually came home on 2nd October, two weeks after the September 18 earthquake.

It’s been over a month since he returned home, but, as far as I know, the PM still has not visited any of the areas that were hit by the earthquake.

And last Sunday, the PM left the country again, this time to attend the SAARC summit that will take place in The Maldives on 10th and 11th November.

Meanwhile, our people are still struggling to rebuild their lives and their homes. The September 18 earthquake damaged 9000 structures and cost Nu 888 million.

The best possible shed

Impressive

I’m in Shaba, a small village in Sombaykha. The recent earthquake damaged all 12 of its houses. Luckily, no one was injured. And thankfully, most of the houses have suffered only minor damages.

But one house was hit hard. It has been damaged beyond repair. It’s still standing. But barely so. And it is no longer safe. That house belongs to Ap Zhep, aged 70, and his family.

Fearing aftershocks, every family scrambled to erect temporary shelters for themselves immediately after the earthquake.

And because Ap Zhep was practically homeless, the entire village got together to build him a shed. They pooled their resources–they contributed tarpaulin, CGI sheets, timber and labour–to build his family the best possible temporary shelter.

I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Ap Zhep’s temporary home. It boasts a spacious room with proper floorboards and a full sized traditional stove. Plus it has a store room and a covered verandah. He claims that the only reason he doesn’t have electricity in his shed is because it’s not safe to climb on the roof of his damaged house to remove the solar panels.

But it’s not just in Shaba that the community joined hands to help one of their own. In Shebji, a neighboring village, the residents got together to build a shed for Aum Sonam and Dorji Wangchuk. And I already know that I’ll hear similar heartwarming stories across other villages in Sombaykha.

 

Truly shocking!

Bhutan Today’s headline this morning was shocking. “People living in miserable conditions: OL” it screamed.

Shocking! But not quite true.

The recent earthquake destroyed many houses. According to government reports more than 4000 houses have been damaged. So many people are unhappy. And they are frightened. And they are impatient. They want the authorities to finalize their insurance claims, so that they can start dismantling and rebuilding their homes before aftershocks inflict further damage to them.

In the meantime, people whose houses have been destroyed beyond repair or are no longer safe, are living in makeshift tents, in temporary huts, or in cowsheds. And many of them have moved in with their neighbours.

Naturally, their living conditions are difficult. But the indomitable spirit of our people, combined with their ability and willingness to come together in times of crises, have ensured that the earthquake victims do not have to live in “miserable conditions”. So to say that they are would be a gross exaggeration. And Bhutan Today should not sensationalize an already painful situation, especially when the OL cautioned them against doing just that.

That is what’s truly shocking!

Earthquake!

As we drove home earlier this evening, my wife noticed that Taba was in total darkness. And she observed that the residents were huddled, in the dark, outside their houses. It was an eerie sight.

We were driving, so we hadn’t felt the earth move. A powerful earthquake, measuring 6.9 units, had hit the Himalayas. Its epicenter was reportedly in Sikkim.

In Bhutan, thankfully, no major damages have been reported. But posts on Twitter indicate that the tremors were felt throughout our country. I’m concerned about our farm houses, old monasteries and dzongs – they, and their residents, are the most vulnerable. And I’m especially concerned about them in our two western most dzongkhags, Haa and Samtse – they border the Indian state of Sikkim.

If required, please help your neighbours. Please cooperate with the authorities. And please, please stay safe.

UPDATE: Hearing reports of cracks in houses, including some in the Tashichhodzong. Also, several landslides along Thimphu – Phuentsholing highway.

UPDATE: Several houses damaged in upper Haa. Three people referred to Thimphu hospital. A few others treated for minor injuries.

UPDATE: More information on PM’s Facebook page.

GNH for dummies

Gross National Happiness explained in three minutes by Morten Sondergaard, a “serial entrepreneur”.

Enjoy!

Bhutan prays

His Majesty the King

It’s almost exactly a week since the 9.0 earthquake hit Japan triggering the worst disaster in that country since WW II. The catastrophe, which has already taken thousands of lives, and left countless more homeless and destitute, has galvanized governments and peoples around the world in support of Japan’s mighty relief efforts.

In Bhutan too, people throughout the country are offering prayers for the victims of the disaster in Japan. His Majesty the King has lit butter lamps and offered prayers with the Japanese community in Bhutan. Similarly, the prime minister and government also offered butter lamps and prayers.

Earlier this morning, the Central Monastic Body began offering three days of continuous prayers for the victims in Japan. The prayers are being conducted in all twenty dzongkhags. But if you are in Thimphu, please visit the kunrey in the Tashichhodzong to join our monks in solemn prayer.

Our youth have also starting mobilizing support for the earthquake victims. Kilu Music School together with Radio Valley, Bhutan Today and The Journalist have announced that they will be performing a “donation concert” to raise funds.

And I just received the following SMS:

Thimphu Primary School is doing a sponsored walk on Sunday 9:30 AM to the  Buddha Point. We’re trying to raise money for the earthquake victims in Japan. Please join us, contribute and walk to help someone in need. See you there – TPS family:)

UPDATE

His Majesty the King has donated US$ 1 million to the Japan

The Youth Development Fund will organize a fund raising concert on 26th March

Recalling 21/9

Wanted: Relief Fund

Yesterday, we marked the first anniversary of the 21st September earthquake. It gave us reason to recall the widespread destruction that the earthquake unleashed on the Eastern parts of our country, and the untold sufferings that our people had to endure.

It also gave us reason to celebrate the indomitable spirit of the Bhutanese people. During the past year, thousands of homes and countless lives have been rebuilt, as people from all walks of life – famers, civil servants, the clergy, the business community, armed forces, students, and civil society – throughout our kingdom, came together and joined the massive relief efforts that were initiated and personally led by His Majesty the King.

To be sure, a lot of work still remains to be done. A majority of the damaged houses are still under reconstruction. And His Majesty’s Peoples’ Project is still on a war footing helping earthquake victims rebuild their lives.

So, yesterday, as a member of parliament, I had reason to be concerned. It’s already been a year since the earthquake, and relief works continue. Plus nobody knows when the next big natural calamity will strike. Yet we, MPs, have not yet established the Relief Fund, which according to Article 14 Section 12 of the Constitution:

Parliament shall establish a relief fund and the Druk Gyalpo shall have the prerogative to use this fund for urgent and unforeseen humanitarian relief.

The ruling party and the government must act immediately to establish the relief fund. Otherwise, the opposition party may feel compelled to introduce a private bill to establish the important fund.

Another disaster!

Today, on True Bap the blessed rainy day – I join the nation in offering my prayers and support for the victims of the deadly earthquake that struck our eastern dzongkhags yesterday afternoon. BBS and Kuensel have reported loss of lives and extensive damage. The international media has also expressed concern.

Government officials are already at work, contacting the gewogs and accessing the damage. The full extent of the earthquake’s destruction will not be known for sometime. But there’s one important sign of hope: since yesterday evening, no more deaths have been reported.

I am in Dehi, en route to New York, to attend the UN General Assembly.