Published in Republica.
Champa Kamal sits in front of her home, holding her children. She won’t let them go to school – she’s afraid the bulldozers might come while they are away and they would get separated.
With constant threats to raze the homes along Kathmandu’s Bagmati River where Kamal lives, she sits day after day with her children in her lap, waiting.
As part of urban development plans, the demolition of squatter settlements in and around Kathmandu has been debated for years.
The Bagmati Action Plan, developed in 2009 with the aim to clean and develop the river basin, advocates for relocation of squatter settlements, and reports that millions of Rupees have been allocated for such an effort – but mentions no plan for its execution.
On November 27 of last year, the government formed a taskforce specifically charged with razing the settlements along the Bagmati. In an unexpected turn, all three major political parties agreed to the move.
On December 11, an Appellate Court, petitioned by an alliance of five squatter organizations, ordered a 35-day stay order on demolitions.
As the stay drew to a close, no clear message had been delivered to the residents. Instead, they relied on rumors and news reports to learn about their future.
Kamal has been living in her current home – a structure made of corrugated aluminum sheets and scrap wood – for five years.
Originally from a small village outside Barabise, her husband migrated to Qatar for work six years ago. He never came home, and eventually his money transfers stopped as well.
For a year, she waded through life in the village carrying the stigma of an abandoned wife. Then, exhausted, she took the small amount of money she had saved, gathered her children and a few belongings, and took a bus to Kathmandu.
“Maoist cadres in the village had mentioned that anyone who wanted to live on free land could move to the river in Kathmandu,” she recalls. “So when I arrived in the city with my children, I came to the Bagmati.”
Her story is not unique.
A 48-year-old woman who lives with her daughter and four grandchildren explains how she trusted the government representatives who approached her after she lost her job in a carpet factory four years ago.
“Without work, we couldn’t pay rent, so we were going to be homeless – and with the government saying this place was open, it seemed like the best option,” she says.
Once settled, many residents work as domestic workers and day laborers. At 32, Kamal explains that “with the daycare here, we can take work when we get it, and we know the children will be safe.”
Services such as free daycare and schools – some run by government agencies, some by NGOs – have been critical to the survival of people living in the settlements.
“Our kids get free midday meals at the school the Koreans built,” explains Kamal’s neighbor, a mother of three. If the settlement is razed, she fears, the burden to feed four more mouths will strain her meager salary, which she earns as a part-time housekeeper at a hotel.
A 2008 report by Lumanti, an NGO dedicated to the alleviation of urban poverty in Nepal, puts the population of the settlements along the Bagmati just shy of 4,000, and 1,600 of them are of school age.
And while a constellation of services has developed over the years to support children and families in the settlements, the fear of the demolitions has rendered some of these programs ineffective in recent weeks.
NGOs running schools in the Bagmati settlements report record low attendance. Parents, hearing rumors of imminent demolitions, are keeping their kids at home.
“I haven’t received any letters or visits from the government, so I don’t know what the truth is,” says Ram, 59, who has lived in the Teku settlement for 32 years. He has heard a range of rumors, but the one he most strongly believes is that the demolitions will take place in the middle of the night. “They will bring the Armed Police, I heard that on the radio,” he says, “and they’ll ruin our houses and we’ll have to walk to another place. I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Kathmandu newspapers and radio programs have reported multiple brief stays on the demolitions while, in the same breath, discuss plans to use nearly 3,000 police troops to enforce the process.
Taking note of the chaos, Human Rights Watch wrote to the government last week, urging them to adhere to international standards in the eviction process – including informing the settlers of the plans to remove them.
“If the government wants to evict the squatters, they owe them notice substantially in advance. They need to relocate them within a reasonable distance of the current settlement, and they need to carry out the evictions humanely,” explains Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “These are international standards – the government has an obligation to follow them,” Adams adds.
Addressees of the letter, representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works, and the Ministry of Land Reforms and Management denied direct involvement in or knowledge of the eviction process and directed questions to Mahesh Bahadur Basnet, Chair of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization. “
We only provide security for the process by sending the Police,” explained Shankar Koirala, spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs.
SSP Ravi Raj Shrestha, spokesperson at the Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s Office, explains that the Police forces are waiting for orders as well. “We don’t have any instructions right now,” he says, “so we too are waiting to hear from the Bagmati Committee and the government.”
According to him, the Police are charged with providing security, but also might take part in demolishing the structures, depending on what the Committee order instructs.
Gajendra Kumar Thakur, the committee’s program manager, claims they have no responsibility in the demolitions, and that they are charged only with beautifying the river. “When the demolitions happen, it must come from a Cabinet decision,” he explains. “It was the government which made the announcement, and it is the government which will carry out the evictions.”
In the past, relocations have been carried out successfully. In 2009, Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, UN-Habitat, and slum dweller NGOs all supported the successful relocation of residents living along the banks of the Bishnumati River to an area in Kirtipur.
However, the government also has a history of manipulating residents of squatter settlements into powerful voting blocks. Just as Kamal was encouraged by Maoist cadres to leave her village for free land along the Bagmati, for 20 years ephemeral powers have encouraged people to move from the countryside to the city, occupy such land, and, to return the favor, vote the party line.
“The Maoists told us to move here and then asked us for our votes, so we gave it because they gave us land,” explains Bishnu, age 48, who moved here during the Conflict when his village was attacked.
He is not alone in his frustration: “Whenever the government needs votes, they come, but whenever they don’t and they are powerful and fine, they forget about us,” says Kamal. “Now they remember us but in a different way – now they want to destroy us.”
But the common experience and location has given the residents power in numbers.
Observers have argued that as a result of many parties manipulating the residents over time to swell their voter base, the political clout of the population has grown so strong that no government would dare evict them.
Research protocols to determine “genuine squatters” and weed out those in the settlements who own land elsewhere have been caught in a bureaucratic skein for years and have been implemented inconsistently.
And as the current Maoist-led government moves to widen roads around the city – destroying private property in neighborhoods across socioeconomic strata – it would seem some of that fear of the voting block has eroded.
Elsewhere in Kathmandu, reactions to the government’s urban development plans have touched on the experience of the settlement residents. In the Baluwatar neighborhood in early December, a stone’s throw from the Prime Minister’s residence, hundreds of armed Metropolitan Police were called in to enforce road widening demolitions.
“We were given no notice, no compensation, nothing,” laments one resident of the affluent neighborhood as she surveys the rubble in front of her house.
And while the legal status of the land being taken for public road widening and that of clearing out squatter settlements differ, the frustration with the processes mirror one another: “If they treat us like this,” asks the Baluwatar resident, “how are they going to treat poorer, weaker people of this city as they destroy property in the name of development?”
Preliminary data from the 2011 census shows that Nepal is urbanizing: ten years ago, 14 percent of Nepal’s population lived in urban areas. Today, it has increased to 17 percent. Kathmandu is now home to over 1.7 million people.
“The irony in all of this is that if the government wants to develop and beautify this city, they need labor,” explains the Programs Manager of Compassion for Migrant Children, an organization working with children in migrant settlements across Asia, including the Bagmati squatter settlements. “And labor,” she continues, “is often provided by people who live in settlements like the ones they’re threatening in Kathmandu.”
Residents of the settlements have come to the city, faithfully following the advice of political operatives, or in the hopes of a new life. They build homes, raise families, and contribute to the economy of one of South Asia’s fastest growing cities.
For decades, these people have been shifted around in the name of politics. However, this shift away from the settlements might have an impact beyond what city developers are envisioning.
That it’s being carried out in the name of development neglects the fact that the residents of these settlements play an important role in how Kathmandu will develop.
As officials wait for orders, and the sclerotic bureaucracy figures out how to implement their plan and move these people away, residents like Champa Kamal have no choice but to wait.
“If they take us away,” Kamal explains, “it won’t be a long time before they realize that the city needs us, too.”