Devastated university takes self-help route to reconstruction

In the wake of the 25 April earthquake and huge aftershocks that jolted the country, Nepal’s largest public university has set up a fund – and staff are donating a proportion of their own salaries – to help with reconstruction of its buildings.

Students and alumni are being mobilised to put the university back on its feet, helping to clear rubble, salvage materials and perform other tasks.

With the government overwhelmed by the task of rehabilitation and reconstruction nationally, Tribhuvan University, or TU, executive board last week decided to initiate a renovation and reconstruction programme of its own with the support of well wishers, after assessing that reconstruction could take years if it depends solely on the government or aid donor agencies.

Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, heavily dependent on foreign aid.

The university has set up the 'TU Reconstruction Fund' for public donations after the earthquake devastated the university, one of the world's largest in terms of student enrolment.

The quake destroyed administrative and academic buildings, including two research institutions. Damage is estimated at around NPR3 billion (around US$30 million).

"In a time of national crisis we cannot leave everything to the government alone," said TU vice-chancellor Hira Bahadur Maharjan. "We want to set an example by showing that we are capable of generating resources on our own. This will lower the burden on the government."

According to Maharjan, NPR150 million (US$1.5 million) has been deposited in the fund so far from internal university sources, and an equal amount will soon be added from donations by university staff.

The university’s management, including the vice-chancellor, rector, registrars, deans and chiefs of various departments have each donated one month’s salary to the fund. Similarly, lecturers and administrative staff have agreed to contribute the equivalent of 10 days’ salary, while those from the assistant level or below will contribute the equivalent of five days’ salary.

Currently 15,228 members of staff, from the lowest to highest pay grades, are working at TU either in permanent or temporary posts.

"Not just monetary (support), our students can provide engineering or technical support and even help in construction which will tremendously decrease our cost," Maharjan said.

Swift response

There has been a swift response to the university’s call for assistance. Inside the wrecked building of TU’s central library, a group of youths were busy gathering the scattered books on the afternoon of 19 May. Accompanied by library staff and security personnel, some were recovering books from the debris, while others were arranging them in a safer building nearby.

To the surprise of many, the youths were student union members, usually criticised for ‘wasting time’ on politicking, but now working together for a cause. The presence of student union members has now become common at the country's oldest library, located on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

The student union members volunteered following the university’s call for financial or physical help from its students, alumni and others. The unions have formed different groups that can be mobilised whenever the university seeks such assistance.

Classroom renovation

With NPR30 million expected to be deposited into the fund in a week, TU’s executive board has decided to start the renovation of classrooms wherever possible, delaying the reconstruction of the collapsed administration building until more funds become available.

In some colleges where buildings cannot be used, temporary learning centres will be established. "We will go for the administrative building only after completing the construction of classrooms," said Bhola Dhakal, chief of the division of general administration at TU.

TU is in contact with university alumni in good jobs within and outside the country, and has requested help. A majority of Nepal’s graduates are the product of TU and they occupy a significant share of positions in politics and the bureaucracy in the country.

TU officials said they have assurances from alumni from all around the world, and the institution was planning to hold a pledging conference after developing a concrete plan.

TU alumnus Gagan Thapa, a popular and influential youth leader and parliamentarian of the Nepali Congress Party, the country’s largest political party, has said he will take a lead in generating funds from alumni.

TU also has a plan to seek help from universities abroad with whom it has been collaborating in different fields, if internal sources are not sufficient for reconstruction. To date TU has been working with 140 universities in various countries across the world.

The 25 April earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale was followed by frequent strong aftershocks and has so far has taken a toll of over 8,750 lives, including 36 teachers, with over 22,000 people injured.