Nepali Times
Kathmandu’s malignant urban tumour


Three tents stand on the muddy banks of the Bishnumati between Kalimati and Nayabazar. Bal Bahadur Tamang recently shifted his tent and family up a couple of meters after the monsoon-swollen river swept away a part of the riverbank.

The west bank of the Bishnumati is one of the few areas in Kathmandu which is still available to for construction. A long-planned north-south link road may someday offer relief for the capital's congested traffic but till that happens, this is home to many squatters. Till last year, 142 families lived here but their houses were bulldozed away. They are both victims and symbols of this ongoing urbanisation process.

According to one survey, some 800 new squatter families in the past two years began living in public spaces in the city centre along the floodplains of the Bishnumati and Bagmati. In total, there are an estimated 2,800 families living in shacks, tents and makeshift huts on land they do not own. While Kathmandu's slums are nowhere near the scale of Bombay's Dharavi or the notorious shantytowns of Calcutta, urban pressures triggered by insurgency-related out migration from the districts is making the crisis more serious.

Chandra Raj Bhandari came to Kathmandu from Nuwakot in 2000 after Maoists attacked him with khukuris, assuming he was an army informer. Bhandari still can't walk properly, and shows us scars all over his body. Despite the ceasefire he doesn't dare go back to his village. "My family came to live with me in Balaju. The house in the village is locked, and this monsoon nobody is working my fields." Bhandari knows of at least 150 others from his own village who have come to Kathmandu.

Jungle to concrete jungle
It is clear the root problem of urbanisation has always been rural under-development and a lack of jobs in the countryside. This has been exacerbated by the violence of the insurgency. Unless that crisis is first solved, rural migration to the cities will not stop, and they will leave their real jungles for a concrete one.

Municipalities have to cope the best they can to accommodate everyone, streamline services like water and electricity, prevent squatting and ensure that the Valley's unique urban habitat is not permanently destroyed. At present, the Valley's population growth rate of 1.2 million is increasing by about 6 percent, meaning it will double by 2015. While a majority of migrants rent rooms or start living with a family, the poorest become squatters. Those who can afford to, buy land and build houses.

This fiscal year the Kathmandu municipality received 5,200 applications for building construction permits. "Until 2001, the average was 3,000," says Devendra Dongol, head of the Urban Development Department. In his office, all the shelves, the desk and even some chairs are piled high with construction applications. "Imagine what Kathmandu will look like in 10 years with an extra 50,000 houses."

Some of the problems are being addressed. The waste disposal site at Gokarna is already full and the municipality has started dumping garbage on some riverbanks, but soon a new location in Okharpauwa just outside of the Valley will be put to use. "The biggest challenge for the next few years will be to regulate construction," Dongol says.

In the past, people who obtained a permit to build a four-storey building often tacked on another two floors. The water and sanitation system, where available, is not equipped for that kind of demand. Take Balaju for example. When the new bus terminal was built a decade ago, it was surrounded by paddy fields. Today the area is clogged with new constructions that belong to recent migrants, mostly from Nuwakot. And they demand facilities like roads, electricity and telephones. "We've tried our best, but it is extremely difficult, especially when houses are already built. Demolition is almost never an option," says Dongol.

Elaborate land use plans with a vision for the Kathmandu Valley in 2020 have been created, but even the municipality admits it is not realistic. It has neither the capacity nor the resources to make sure the infrastructure keeps pace with the increasing population. "We really need to stop this invasion of people," Dongol says. "This is more than the Valley can absorb."

To reduce migration, the government and the Asian Development Bank launched a $37.5 million project in December 2002 to upgrade services and infrastructure in nine towns outside the Valley with populations ranging from 12,000 to 89,000. The most dramatic impact of urbanisation has been on Kathmandu's unique urbanscape with its living cultural heritage and architectural treasures. In July this year, Unesco put the Valley on the 'endangered' list, a move that came after a decade of alarm over the government's inability to address mounting urbanisation.

In the long-term, most experts agree that Kathmandu has to give up some of it political and economic centricism and devolve power out to the rest of the country. That may help reduce some of the pressure on the Valley. It won't be easy, especially because there are no elected local bodies and this means no accountability or responsibility. Bureaucrats who are in charge of the municipalities simply are not allowed to make important decisions. Infrastructure projects are frequently postponed. It all falls to the Valley's municipalities to do their best to prevent the city from becoming a malignant urban tumour.

A voice for squatters

As the only NGO working directly with squatters and slum dwellers in Nepal, Lumanti has changed the face of the poorest communities in Kathmandu and Patan. Women are the backbone of families, so Lumanti began by encouraging several young housewives. Today, the organisation's savings and credit scheme has become a model program for women's empowerment. Each ward in the slum areas of Patan and squatter settlements in Kathmandu now have a group that raises funds from members, which is then deposited at the Agricultural Development Bank from where loans can be taken at minimum interest rates.

Satu Shahi remembers how seven years ago she would hide when strangers came around. As a part of Lumanti, she has confronted the municipality and even former city mayor Keshab Sthapit to lobby for better roads in her ward in Khapinchen. "We had zero when we started," says Satu. "But today my friends and I have raised Rs 250,0000."

A visit to slum areas like Lonhla, Imukhel, Khapinchen and Chyasal shows women are spending as much time outside the home as their male counterparts working on sanitation, education and health awareness, child development and human rights. Lumanti's founder, Lajana Manandhar (Nepali Society, #160) told us, "Our work has been possible due to their perseverance and motivation." Lumanti's latest challenge is lobbying for a national policy on housing rights.

Coming apart at the seams

The absence of elected representatives hits squatters the most. Former squatters from the Bishnumati were promised compensation by mayor Keshab Sthapit personally in April 2002. "It never happened," says Krishna Devi Shahi. The municipality's executive officer Shiva Bhakta Sharma says he will compensate the squatters, but blames them for not furnishing the necessary paperwork. "Really, I asked them six months ago to give me proof that they are landless. I am still waiting," he says. Sharma adds that Kathmandu is full of poor people, and if word gets out that the municaplity is giving land or money to squatters, thousands more will be tempted to live on government property.

Squatters in other parts of town who are also have been asked to leave their settlements to make way for new roads or parks, for example in Sankhamul and Bansighat for example, are watching the Bisnhumati commotion with suspicion. They don't want promises, they want to see a new place to live before they voluntarily vacate their present habitats. They know all too well that land is scarce in a city that is coming apart at the seams.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)