Kamitar used to be a beautiful village nestled in an amphitheatre of paddy fields when Kisan Kumari Maharjan came here as a new bride 30 years ago. The family fields produced enough grain, vegetables and fruit to feed the family, and they sold the surplus in the nearby markets.
Then came the cement factory, and lite for Kisan Kumari and her neighbours changed drastically. Gray cement dust covered the fertile fields and caked and formed rock-hard surfaces. The air was thick with coal dust, soot and limestone particles. When her village was downwind from the factory, it was unbearable. Many villagers developed chronic coughs. Harvests suffered. Chobhar\'s famous cauliflowers, radish and spinach don\'t sell anymore because they arc stunted.
\' We saw it all happen, and although we suspected the cement factory, we didn\'t know how to begin to stop it," says Kisan Kumari. "Now everyone here blames the factory, and we are getting organised."
Unlike other settlements around Kathmandu Valley, Kisan Kumari\'s village has seen very few outsiders moving in. No marks for guessing why. The neighbourhood did not attract any buyers even when Kathmandu\'s real estate values hit the roof. Today land here sells for just Rs 250,000 a ropani. Over the ridge towards Kirtipur town, it is three times more. The most badly-affected villages are in ward numbers 13, 14 and 15 of Kirtipur and wards 5, 6 and 7 of Saibu.
Local residents say they began opposing the cement factory from the day it opened in 1979, but the protests were silenced by the rulers of the day. In the years after democracy, the affected have raised their voices many times but so far without success. Last month, their objection took a dramatic turn when the Environment Protection Agitation Committee, a protest group formed three years ago, severed water supply lines to the factory on 11 August.
Police moved in and arrested about 30 agitators and the factory remained closed for five days. Finally the management reached an agreement with the protestors. The factory management agreed to immediately install filters to reduce dust emissions from the stack, prepare a long-overdue environmental impact assessment, and build a retaining wall to protect the Pakha Gaun area of Saibu from landslides.
The protestors are now getting overdue support from environmental groups in the city, which is also affected by the dust and pollution. Experts say up to 80 percent of the Valley-wide dust and soot that gets trapped by the winter inversion is from Himal Cement. Kathmandu is the only major city in the world with a cement factory in full-scale production only four km from the city centre. And the factory\'s proximity to the holy Chobliar Gorge and the Chobhar Ganesh Temple makes
its presence even more galling.
Most urban planners, environmentalists and now villagers want the factory closed down immediately. Senior Geologist at the Department of Mines and Geology Krishna Prasad Kafle gives yet another reason: The factory has already used up mineable limestone. Continuation of mining there can lead to geological disasters and more environment damage."
The only reason the government keeps Himal Cement running is its daily production of 120 tonnes. But that amounts to only 43,800 tonnes a year, even if the factory runs for 365 days. This is less than 3 percent of the country\'s annual demand of 1.5 million tonnes.
Nepal\'s domestic production meets only 40 percent of total demand. The government has been attempting to make up for the shortfall, most notably by inviting India\'s Birla Cement to establish a cement factory in Surkhet two years ago, and also permitting another Nepal-India joint venture in Arghakhanchi in 1997. But Birla is fighting for tax concessions and the government has given the company final notice to set up its factory or have its licence annulled.
Back in Chobhar, protestors say they don\'t really care where the new factories come up. "We arc not demanding the immediate closure of the company, we demand they maintain the environmental standards so that public health and the environment are not compromised," says Sujindra Maharjan, president of Environment Protection Agitation Committee. Maharjan says the company has violated environmental standards, overlooked seismological warnings, threatened the nearby cultural and historical monuments and houses by indiscriminate explosions during limestone quarrying, and polluted the Bagmati River. General Manager of Himal Cement Subhas Pokhrel was not available for comment and Deputy General Manager Shaker Raj Aryal refused to talk to us. "Though the factory employs many locals the environmental and health problems it has caused are very serious and of a longterm nature," says Jivan Shrestha, a local youth. "During winters the visibility becomes so poor that driving becomes difficult, leading to many road accidents.