By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations has criticized Nepal for imposing customs procedures and taxation on aid, saying that it was delaying the delivery of life-saving materials to tens of thousands of survivors of two recent mega earthquakes.
The twin quakes struck the impoverished Himalayan nation in April and May, killing more than 8,800 people and leaving tens of thousands injured. Almost one million houses were destroyed or damaged, leaving over two million people homeless.
John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said that while he appreciated efforts made by the Nepali authorities to speed up aid delivery, there were bureaucratic hurdles at the airport.
"The government of Nepal has rightly shifted the focus of its efforts from immediate relief to longer term recovery and reconstruction, but this must not come at the expense of families who still require life-saving assistance," Ging said in a statement on Wednesday after a visit to Nepal.
"Backlogs of essential shelter materials continue at Kathmandu airport and the Indian border due to bureaucratic impediments. This is delaying aid reaching 100,000 families who require urgent shelter assistance as the monsoon season begins."
Nepal's finance ministry spokesman Ram Sharan Pudasaini confirmed authorities had begun imposing customs procedures and taxes on aid after a June 22 waiver expired.
"We can't make it (aid) tax-free all the time. Nowhere in the world does any government give this facility for all times," Pudasaini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He did not comment on allegations that the procedures were delaying aid delivery.
Aid workers say they are facing a race against time to get basic items such as plastic sheeting, blankets and dry food rations to survivors as the annual monsoon season gets underway.
Heavy rains are already causing landslides and damaging roads, hampering the ability of aid trucks to reach remote mountainous villages where survivors are awaiting relief.
"The window to reach communities in remote areas is shrinking, as the monsoon season makes mountain villages increasingly inaccessible," UNOCHA said in a statement.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu. Editing by Alex Whiting. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)