Urban sprawl is gobbling up Kathmandu's farms at an unprecedented rate, and may wipe them out within a couple of decades.
From 1976-2009, the proportion of cultivated land in Kathmandu dropped from 61 per cent to 40 per cent. Experts say the average farm size has shrunk considerably too.
Farmers have found it more profitable to sell their farms, usually to people seeking to build houses, than work on them, as rapid urbanisation has caused land prices to surge ahead of agricultural yield. The rising cost of living has hastened the process.
Forty-year-old Sanu Khadka works all day on a two-ropani plot in Pasikot on the outskirts of Kathmandu but barely manages to feed her family of three. Her husband chips in by working odd-jobs in the city.
"My family has lived here for three generations and our farm used to be a lot bigger. But we've had to sell everything as living expenses have risen. With land prices so high, how can a poor family afford not to?" Khadka says.
Such decisions, multiplied many times over, have deformed the cityscape. While farms on the outskirts are more or less contiguous, those closer to the centre of the city alternate with residences to form an unseemly patchwork pattern.
Things weren't always this way. During the Malla era, the fertile areas around river banks were reserved for farms. Waste from settlements, which were higher up, would flow down to the farms, fertilise them, and then run off into the river. Bharat Upadhyay of the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED) explains: "Back then, there were clear directives on what land could be used for which purpose. The prime reason for the current urban sprawl, and the damage it has caused to urban agriculture, is the fact that there is no operative land use act."
The loss of urban farms has had several negative social consequences. Food production per capita in Kathmandu has dropped precipitously and now accounts for only a third of the city's food supply. That figure is projected to drop as more migrants flood into the city. Kathmandu was once totally food self-sufficient.
It's also bad for the environment, since the lost farms could have put the city's solid waste to productive use and would have been less detrimental to the underground water supply than the houses that have replaced them.
It also means there are fewer jobs for city farmers. Shyam Lama and his wife arrived in Kathmandu from Rasuwa 13 years ago and keep a small farm on a vacant plot left under their care by the owners. Yet Lama spends most of his time looking for odd-jobs in the city since the farm requires only one person's labour. "I do this and that. I don't really have a stable job. If our plot were bigger, say around six ropanis, then I could spend all my time working on it. But that makes no sense now."
But all is not lost. Although much of the city's farmland is unrecoverable, farmers can still make a lot of money by growing high-value or perishable crops, like tomatoes and mushrooms. Many inner-city farmers have already made the switch from cereals and are doing fairly well.
"The government should support farmers to grow cash crops. There is a good market for such goods and Kathmandu's soil is well-suited to them," says Mahesh Prasad Pudasani of CEAPRED. In particular, the government should invest in better storage facilities. About a third of vegetables in urban market places go to waste from spoilage. Experts say Kathmandu's farms can produce up to 70 per cent of the city's vegetable demand.
It goes without saying that the government must also draft and enforce appropriate land use provisions and stem the rise in land prices. Until then, the likes of Khadka and Lama can only wait and watch as their livelihoods fall prey to urban sprawl.