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In Gupsi Pakha in Gorkha district, about 2,750m above sea level, there are 573 identical, evenly spaced, two storeyed brick buildings. They are painted red and white, with blue tin roofs, and each building has three small windows and a door. From afar, the buildings look complete. Inside, they are decrepit. The unplastered walls contain a sprawl of construction materials and debris, the buildings mere skeletons of what should be ordered space, two rooms and an attic. The settlement looks eerie, makeshift.

Three-and-a-half years after construction began, no one lives in the NPR 350 million Gupsi Pakha project, which has no toilets, no water supply system, and no paved roads. After Laprak village was flattened in the 2015 earthquake, the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRN) identified the community as a major beneficiary of its post-earthquake reconstruction efforts. The Association chose Gupsi Pakha, 600 metres above Laprak, to resettle the 600 families who had lost their homes.  It was a prestige project, marketed extensively as a “model village” that was going to usher the rural population into meticulously planned, “developed” modernity. But Laprak residents, whose lives had been turned upside down by the natural calamity, were not looking to be “developed.” They wanted to farm and herd their goats and have their lives go back to normal. The vision that NRN went with was fundamentally incompatible with what the residents of Laprak wanted and needed.

Laprak village in 2019. Photo: Khem Shreesh

The people of Laprak continue to live in Laprak which, geologists warn, remains unstable, vulnerable to disastrous landslides, and which the government has designated a “red zone”–  extremely unsafe. Construction began in January 2016 and Laprakis were promised new houses by autumn that year. With the project now almost three years behind schedule, most Laprakis have already spent lakhs each repairing and rebuilding their houses on their original land and re-established their livelihoods.

The project has all but failed. As of June 2019, the NRN Association appears to be washing its hands of the mess, and attempting to turn the incomplete project over to the government.

Given the size of the project, the amount of money poured into it, and the number of high-profile actors who were involved, it is baffling that things turned out so catastrophically wrong. Mani Gurung, a social worker, told me that Laprak residents were told that Gupsi Pakha would be “sun ko anda parne pokhari” (a pond with golden eggs). The outlook was excellent. The NRN Association raised NPR 350 million from its members all over the world to build houses in 18.32 hectares of government land in Dharche Rural Municipality. Laprak residents were happy to have benevolent benefactors involved in rehabilitation efforts. The media loved the story of a rural, often forgotten area finally getting to see bikas, even if on the heels of a disaster.

Sworup Gurung, senior architect at Arniko Designers, was involved in the initial design of  the project. He showed me the sketches of the Laprak “model settlement” that he and his team developed in 2016. The blueprints show houses with a toilet and a bathroom, a grain drying area, a small garden, and even a small guest room. The actual buildings in Gupsi Pakha have a fraction of the rooms and facilities envisioned in the plan. But Sworup Gurung of Arniko Associates says the association’s first, and fatal, mistake was insisting on Gupsi Pakha as the site for the new settlement. “Gupsi Pakha was formed during a landslide,” he explains. “It is definitely not stable. We discovered that early on, while testing the soil. We told members of NRN this, but they did not listen to us.”

Gurung says he and his team found a workaround and designed 400 houses that would be safe in the area, but insisted to the NRN Association that the remaining 200 houses would need to be built elsewhere. “That is not what happened. 573 houses were built in Gupsi Pakha anyway.”

Laxman Aryal, an engineer involved with NRN who is currently the manager of the project, disagrees with Sworup Gurung’s assessment. “The government gave us land and we built 573  houses on it, majjale pugya cha jagga,” he said. According to Aryal, there were no problems with the project design or the area that was chosen— the fact that construction work can only happen in the area for a couple of months each year due to the difficult topography was the only reason NRN was unable to deliver in the timeframe that it promised.

Without inhabitants Gupsi Pakha looks like a ghost-town

Sworup Gurung expressed a great deal of frustration at the way in which NRN handled the implementation of the project. He claims nobody communicated with him about how the project was moving forward and the whole thing was bhadragol (in disarray) by the fact that NRN was disorganized, overly politicized, and final decisions were taken by people who had no technical know-how or understanding of the socio-cultural considerations pertaining to Laprak.

“I was happy to operate at a loss if it meant that the project would be a success. The most important thing to me was that the settlement be self-sustaining, with opportunities for income generation. There would be a community centre, provisions for homestays for tourists, shops, museums. None of that was actually built,” Sworup Gurung said. Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist and former member of the National Planning Commission, who was an advisor to NRN when the Gupsi Pakha project was first conceptualized, shares Sworup Gurung’s frustration at how badly things turned out.

“I was the one who was insistent that NRN build houses for the people of Laprak instead of Barpak, which is where they initially wanted to build,” Ganesh Gurung told me. “The fact that the population is mostly uniform made it seem like it would be easier to plan a settlement, and we wanted to make it a compelling destination for tourists. There would be a stadium to showcase Gurung culture, chowks commemorating important figures, and adequate opportunities for income generation.”

Ganesh Gurung explained that after his expertise, recommendations, and concerns were repeatedly ignored by NRN leadership, he made the decision to step away from the project for his own sanity.

Ganesh Gurung and Sworup Gurung are two amongst the many who were actively involved with the project in its initial stages, but threw their hands up and left after working on the project when NRN became extremely difficult. But while they place the blame squarely on NRN, it is hard to ignore their role in the fact that the idea of the “model village” superseded any and all practical concerns about the livelihoods of the people of Laprak who are primarily farmers. Sworup Gurung and Ganesh Gurung, as well as senior members of NRN, all shared a vision of a utopian settlement that would attract spendy foreign tourists, create jobs in the hospitality industry, and be able to sustain itself by becoming fully integrated into the market economy. The project was part of the “building back better” mania where the devastation of the earthquake was thought to provide an opportunity for fast-track development. In reality, this wasn’t a realistic or feasible proposition. Residents of Laprak were being asked to abandon their way of life completely to become “model settlers” of Gupsi Pakha, and the settlement wasn’t being planned with a consideration of their needs. The “expert” arrogance of the technocrats who thought they knew better than the “locals” is an important reason why the project was doomed from the start.    

The idea of the “model village” superseded any and all practical concerns about the livelihoods of the people of Laprak who are primarily farmers

And then there is the terrain— Gupsi Pakha has such a difficult topography that even with the best of intentions, building hundreds of houses in the span of a couple of years was a near-impossible task. Various NRN members have expressed their frustration at the numerous roadblocks that made construction a difficult, and costly enterprise.  In an opinion piece from July 2017, Dil Gurung, an NRN member, wrote: “People ask: they’ve built so many houses everywhere else, why has it been difficult for NRN to do the same? Because of the difficulties of Gupsi Pakha, building 573 houses there is equivalent to building 5000 houses somewhere else!”

Shesh Ghale and Jamuna Gurung, Australian business magnates who were part of NRN leadership in 2016 when the project first began, detailed the struggles of constructing houses in Gupsi Pakha in an interview with onlinekhabar in August 2017. “The government had said that no more than 3 lakhs could be spent on each house, but because of the difficulty of the terrain, each house cost us 12-15 lakhs to build,” Ghale said in the interview. “If this had been a commercial venture we would have stepped away from it a long time ago…situations like this are do or die,” Jamuna Gurung added.

According to Raj Gurung, Ward Member of Laprak, after Shesh Ghale stepped down from the leadership position, internal battles within NRN made it difficult for Laprak residents to communicate their needs to the leadership and have them be addressed. “NRN is telling us to build toilets in the houses ourselves now, which seems negligent. I think there are a lot of problems within NRN, and the government hasn’t been good at surveilling things and making sure the project runs smoothly. I also think villagers are partly at fault, as they haven’t been willing to help out in the way that they should. I am grateful, however, to the Nepal Army, for continuing to work on construction even when everyone else seems to have left us.” Raj Gurung said.

At this point, successful completion of the project seems extremely unlikely. But even if there were an intervention to complete the project, few residents believe the Gupsi Pakha houses will be worth living in. With experts largely being in charge of what to do and how to do it, there was not much community participation in the design and implementation of the project. “Because they came in, and without consulting the locals began working, locals didn’t show much interest in helping complete the project,” Raj Gurung, the Ward member, said.

Surman Gurung, who doesn’t intend to move up to Gupsi Pakha even if the houses are completed. Photo: Abha Lal

Shirmaya Sunwar, 37, won’t be moving. For one, she has already spent 7 lakh rupees rebuilding her house in Laprak. As critically, her farm, where she cultivates potatoes, corn and millet, is below Laprak, and the journey between it and Gupsi Pakha would be unsustainably long and arduous. She smiles when asked about the project: “Khai, thik pani lagcha, bethik pani lagcha.

These concerns are echoed by others. Forty-something Surman Gurung says, “There are no farms up there. We can’t sit idly, doing nothing. In order to have a livelihood, I must farm, and in order to farm, I must stay in the village.” Like most Laprak residents, he stayed in temporary shelters in Gupsi Pakha for a couple of months after the earthquake, but moved back down to the village after the 2015 monsoon.

Temporary shelters in Gupsi Pakha in 2015. Photo: Sonam Lama

Other factors, too, militate against a move, particularly to Gupsi Pakha. At over 2,750m, it is extremely cold and its particular situation means it is covered in snow for close to six months of the year. Mani Gurung, a Laprak social worker, says that in comparison, Laprak is at a lower altitude, has a gentler terrain, and provides some protection from the elements. “There is no way that old people, in particular, could handle the cold in Gupsi Pakha. Young people might go up from Laprak in the rainy season when the risk of landslides is the greatest, but its terrain of Gupsi Pakha is very difficult,” says Gurung.

Other residents are wary of abandoning their ancestral homes for religious and spiritual reasons. An overwhelming majority of Laprak’s Gurung residents are animists, and their rituals are tied to specific features of the landscape around their homes. Kamala Gurung, who is about 65, explains that even if she lived in Gupsi Pakha she would maintain her house in Laprak and come back down to perform pujas. In her mind, Gupsi Pakha would at best be temporary shelter for a couple of months a year.

The government green-lighted a massive project costing hundreds of millions of rupees without adequate consideration of what were important, inhibiting factors, and the result has been that while people continue to live in the village that stands on weathered and fractured rocks that cannot stand another catastrophe, the houses of Gupsi Pakha stand barren and haunting, possibly forever unlivable.