For the first few days following the 25 April earthquake, everyone in the Nepal government was too shocked to get organised. The state’s preparedness was found to be wanting and there was confusion about what kind of emergency relief was needed most urgently, and where. Ironically, those first few days without government interference meant that international help came in unhindered. Tents, medicine, food, equipment could all be brought in without hassles at customs. It has not been the same since the government started issuing new directives and making rules.
Photos: Stéphane Huët
One week after the quake, the Rastra Bank put out a rudely-worded statement warning that any individual donation that didn’t go to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund would be ‘confiscated’. The PMO clarified that that was only for NGOs set up after 25 April, but the damage was done and Nepal probably lost tens of millions of dollars in aid.
Things were even more confused at customs where officials behaved as if they had no idea about the enormity of the crisis and the urgency with which incoming relief material needed to be flown out to the mountains.
In an attempt to coordinate response, on 30 April the government came up with a list of relief materials that were customs-free. But even after the publication of this list, local groups struggled with red tape to get relief through customs at Kathmandu airport and entry points.
A group of Nepalis bringing in 20 tents from India through Biratnagar customs a week after the quake were stopped and told to pay duty. Another group still has 300 tents held up in New York because the courier company wanted assurance that it wouldn’t be detained in Kathmandu. Ten tons of clothes, cooking utensils, and sleeping bags are stuck in Catterick in the UK because the donors can’t afford the 30 per cent tax in Nepal. An educational charity received 300 tents from India, but had to wait 12 days to clear it through Kathmandu airport customs. “They always gave a new reason why we couldn’t take the tents,” a frustrated relief worker told us. “They were never clear about what new paperwork was needed.”
Even if tents are on the list of customs-free materials, one charity had to pay warehouse fees to take their equipment out even though the delay was not their fault and the tents were lying outdoors and a third of them were missing.
Indeed, to describe the management of relief supplies at Kathmandu airport’s cargo terminal as ‘chaotic’ would be an understatement. Tents, clothes, and medicines are spilling out of boxes and lie scattered in the open outside the terminal. This correspondent walked right in without an ID card and no one stopped him.
On 3 June the government introduced new guidelines for imported relief supplies under which items on the government’s list can still be imported without paying tax, but they have to hand it over to theMinistry of Home Affairs (MoHA) for distribution. “Organisations which want to distribute imported goods itself has to pay full customs duty,” explained Surya Sedai of the Department of Customs. “This is to minimise the risk of smuggling.”
But not even government units at the border seem to be aware of the list, as Jiwan Rai of Mondo Challenge found out too late on 7 June when he entered Nepal from Darjeeling with solar lamps donated by school children. His local partner, Helambu Education and Livelihood Project (HELP) had assured him there wouldn’t be problems.
After the Armed Police Force at the Kakarvitta border waved him through, a Nepal Police checkpoint at Jore Simal stopped him and said he had to pay import duty on the lamps. Rai was willing to pay, but was told that the lamps would be confiscated because the goods were deemed to have been ‘smuggled’.
We posed this case to Nirman Bhattarai of Jhapa Customs Office, who just said his office was following the government’s new directive.
Jenny Dubin got 250 tents from India to distribute in Dhading via Seva Foundation. The tents were stuck at Sunauli for five days and are now being transported by the Nepal Army (NA) to a central warehouse in Kathmandu. “It’s highway robbery, and offensive to the people who donated, who now have no way to track where the tents they bought go,” Dubin said. “I don’t understand why they cannot distinguish between smugglers and legitimate registered NGOs.”
Army spokesman Brig Gen Jagdish Pokharel said the government had given the army the job of taking relief supplies from Kathmandu to VDCs, not directly to survivors because the government wanted to keep track of what was going where. “We ensure safe transportation,” Pokharel said. “We have the appropriate vehicles to get to these regions where the roads aren’t good.”
Aid workers say the government hasn’t gone to remote villages, like here in Khare, Dolakha, even seven weeks after the earthquake.
Organisations can still distribute imported goods without paying taxes but they have to get permission from seven different ministries and register with the National Emergency Operational Centre (NEOC). Aid workers in the field for the past six weeks say the lengthy procedures are unnecessarily delaying delivery of urgent relief supplies to quake-hit areas.
“We have been to these areas and we have assessed what is needed where,” Dubin said. Other aid workers said the government has centralised aid, but had no idea where supplies were urgently needed – specific information that they had.
Many remote regions affected by the 25 April earthquake are still in critical need of emergency supplies. An online petition on change.org has requested the Prime Minister to stop levying taxes on imported relief.