Interview

In Nepal no one takes earthquake safety seriously: Ananta Ram Baidya

I’ve been coming to Kathmandu quite frequently. Initially I wanted to talk about pre-disaster mitigation issues and transfer some knowledge from the United States based on my experience there. I’m a regulator at different municipalities in San Diego city to ensure public safety.

Lots of money has been spent and there are flurry of activities in post-disaster mitigation here in Nepal. But nobody paid any attention to pre-disaster mitigation which essentially is how you teach your engineers to ensure correct building codes. I’ve come here to teach the basics and hope to open the minds of engineers.

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No one is interested in pre-disaster mitigation

The desire for learning about pre-disaster mitigation in Nepali engineers was on the low side because nobody really expected the earthquake to strike. They also thought that it’s a costly affair. Without public interest and support, the whole thing would have been a waste of time so that I approached the younger generation. I hoped that these young people will discuss and apply this concept of pre-disaster mitigation when they became authorities in the future. Then things would change.

With that intent I taught two years at Kathmandu University, developed the course for KU called Fundamental Concepts of Land Development Building and Accessible Code in View of Public Safety. I taught it pro bono for two years. The students really took to the concept. I thought I would have done something useful for earthquake safety. I believed that municipalities would pick up this subject. I taught from my experience as a regulator and design engineer and that combination is something rare. The students were happy to have this course and me as an instructor.

Accessibility issues

There are not disabled-friendly facilities in place. Accessibility is a big problem here. There are rulebooks governing accessibility for the disabled but no one follows it. I give lectures on need of building disable-accessible infrastructure but everyone just nods their heads and does nothing.

Nonetheless, we have built a public-private disable accessible bathroom in Hardik Hotel, Baghbazaar, meeting Nepal’s needs but to American standard.

There are not disabled-friendly facilities in place. Accessibility is a big problem here. There are rulebooks governing accessibility for the disabled but no one follows it. I give lectures on need of building disable-accessible infrastructure but everyone just nods their heads and does nothing.

We had gone to Hardik Hotel for a conference. I saw the ramp over there and asked the owner whether I could take the measurement. He allowed me to do it. I asked him to make some changes which he did. He told me that he wanted to make a disabled-friendly bathroom and I gave my expert opinion to make it.

Policy-makers’ odious attitude

I visited policymakers to encourage them to make accessible buildings but they do nothing. In Singha Durbar, the ramps don’t work. They have done it in name but not correctly. There is a physical infrastructure guideline governing building codes for accessibility but the whole guidelines contain several errors. They agreed to revise the whole guidelines after I pointed out the errors. The problem is that even their bathrooms and ramps don’t work. Disabled cannot access them. I offered them free expertise to fix things but they didn’t show interest.

All these disabled groups have been clamouring for rights but they don’t know how to achieve those rights. They should be pressuring the government to hire experts about making disabled- and elderly-friendly buildings. Even the donor agencies are at a fault. Had they made it mandatory to include accessibility issues, people over here would have been forced to learn about them and do it correctly.

I’ve been a regulator for the city of San Diego, making sure the public including people with disabilities are travelling, living and moving in a safe environment. I had the opportunity of checking all types of architecture. I fought with all kinds of architects and engineers to have the correct design. But since we follow rule of law there, everyone complies with the rules. I also have a disabled son. My son does not want to come to Nepal because of accessibility issues. That is why I want to ensure accessibility of disabled here as well.

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Disabled-accessible tourism

Disabled-accessible tourism will be a phenomenal source of income. This country is endowed with everything: beauty, tradition, unique heritage, and charming people. But you have to provide the environment. You can create immense wealth by changing your attitude and making travel and living for disabled tourists comfortable.

No progress in post-earthquake reconstruction

I came here in June to see the damage, representing American Society of Nepali Engineers. I am the local liaison chair of that organisation. We want to bring some experiences and ideas here, provided the intellectuals take it. It is very saddening that things have been done wrongly. Pre-disaster mitigation would have saved many lives. But rather than accepting intellectual opinion, everyone is just putting out their palms and hoping that they would get some funds.

It is very saddening that things have been done wrongly. Pre-disaster mitigation would have saved many lives. But rather than accepting intellectual opinion, everyone is just putting out their palms and hoping that they would get some funds.

Earthquake is blessing in disguise

The earthquake is a blessing in disguise. It has provided the opportunity for Nepalis to reflect on what they want for their future. Do you want to do things the same way and put yourself and your children in harm’s way? Or do you want to right the ship that has gone the wrong way? This country has no future if things are done in the same ad hoc manner.

This time the focus of my lecture is fundamentals of public safety which includes safety from earthquake and other natural calamities. All kinds of reconstruction and rejuvenation projects are going on. But let’s not do it the old way. Let’s use modern techniques in rebuilding our heritages. Forget the old for now. We can focus on building new infrastructure with modern technique that ensures earthquake safety.

Right way for reconstruction

The government needs to come up with right programmes. I sent an email to National Reconstruction Authority offering my expertise but they didn’t bother to reply me. They would have called me if they were interested in sustainable reconstruction. This is serious business; you are talking about people’s lives. You have to have the willingness.

They are talking about dispersing money to earthquake victims as reconstruction efforts. That money will be well used if certain earthquake resistant measures are ensured. Let me give an example. A Chepang builds a mud house. He puts straw mats. But what if you put some braces made from the same bamboo? Now you have stabilized the hut. It cannot move and he can run away as soon as the earthquake strikes. Why isn’t the government with all knowledge base and resources spending money on these small things rather than on big research?

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I really wish that local experts with all credentials use their common sense and give that money judiciously. The poor Chepang guy can build his own house with cultural heritage intact. Without interfering in his cultural habitat, he will make his house earthquake-resistant. The money will be well-spent.

They have been training thousands of masons to build rock buildings but more than half the work is to be done by carpenters. So, why aren’t they training the carpenters? Carpenters can be taught to make buildings seismically safe. They decide how the wood is going to be laid, how the floor has to be built, how you use nails and latches. They can be taught the proper way based on some engineering analysis. Then you have created a safer environment.

Ask if you don’t know

I have come with an acronym MEEK which stands for Modern Earthquake Engineering Knowledge. It also means that you have to be humble. You must not hesitate to ask things what you don’t know. There are thousands of dollars sitting in the US. But donors won’t release those funds because they believe things will not be done properly here. Responsible authorities should make a plan about restoring things with their socio-cultural heritage intact but with earthquake-safety measures in place.

Kathmandu is a city on braces and life support. The next big one can wreak such havoc that is beyond imagination. Thus the government needs to be serious about pre-disaster mitigation system.

(Based on the conversation Bindesh Dahal for Lokaantar had with Ananta Ram Baidya, a civil engineer and regulator based in San Diego, California)

Photo: Ashok Maharjan

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