Nepali Times
Ashes to ashes


AFTERMATH: The new school building in the background is framed by the remains of the burnt village

No one knew where the fire started. What they did know was that it travelled faster than the wind carrying it. Within hours, 69 houses had been burnt to the ground, some of them hundreds of metres apart from each other. "It seemed like an invisible force was carrying a torch and setting houses on fire," said a local.

The first few weeks of April bring a sense of menace to Badarjhula, a tiny village marooned from the rest of the country in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park. A fire rages through the village every year, carried by strong winds from nearby forests, consuming the grass-thatched wooden huts and everything in them. "There has been a fire every year since I moved here four years ago," said Devi Gurung, an NGO worker.

Fearing another inferno on the anniversary of last year's destruction, when 20 houses were gutted, locals went around last Friday reminding their neighbours to be careful. Some families were so scared they did not even cook their meals and ate dry beaten rice instead. But the fire came to Badarjhula anyway.

HARVEST OF SORROW: A local girl sifts through the ashes for rice
Throughout the Tarai, fire destroys thousands of hectares of forest and hundreds of houses every summer. This year has been particularly bad. The dry weather seems to make everything combustible, but the fires are usually started by farmers to promote new green flushes.

The 2600 residents of Badarjhula are especially† vulnerable. Squatters in their place of origin and victims of
floods and landslides, they moved here with the end of the Panchayat era when they heard the new democratic dispensation had promised them land.

They walked through the jungles with pots, pans, and little bundles of clothing, children in tow. They said they had been told this patch of forest 65 kilometres from the district headquarters had been released for agriculture. The government disagreed, and has asked them to move several times. In 2004, the army set the village on fire after warning them to leave. The residents soon returned and rebuilt their homes. Twenty years and a new People's Movement later, they have nothing more than pots and pans in their name.

A few days before Friday's blaze, there was a sense of optimism among the locals. A new school building had just been inaugurated Ė a two-storey concrete structure that rose from the ground like a palace amidst the one-room huts. The school was meant to meet the needs of the ever-increasing young population of Badarjhula, who had to travel an hour and a half to the nearest school in Parsa district once they finished primary school. "This is the pride of Badarjhula," said principal A.G. Pariyar as he watched children play cricket in the grounds.

With help from local NGO Samari Utthan Sewa, the people of Badarjhula have pushed for development in other areas too. Unable to secure loans without any collateral, they started 35 savings and co-operative groups. A local health committee runs a health clinic. A landless committee represents the villagers in dealings with the government.

The new school, however, seemed the most promising. The government had offered partial funding for the school building, and agreed to provide most of the teachers, giving rise to hopes that the settlement was on its way to being officially recognised.

"We hope the school is a step towards making our settlement here legal," said Ganesh KC, who founded the first school in the village, where he taught in return for rice and eggs from the villagers. "We think the government won't uproot it after investing in it."

After Friday's blaze, the school looked even taller. The houses around it had been burnt to ashes. Villagers sifted through the ruins to see if the fire had spared anything. They slept in the open and talked about setting up tents until they could rebuild. It seemed like a ritual for after all, they have done this many times before.


Land of the landless, pictures of Badarjhula taken before the fire

1. Gangalal

"It seemed like an invisible force was carrying a torch and setting houses on fire," said a local.
Is this meant to convey the ignorance of the locals of Hadarjhula?

There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; 
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

2. Indu
Thank you for your comment Gangalal.¬

The quote you mention is actually meant to convey the shock felt by locals at the manner in which the fire spread. When we were at the village a few days before the fire, the hills nearby were lit in fire, like garlands of lights you see at festivals. So, they knew if a strong wind blew there would be a fire in the village, but they were shocked at how the fire spread to houses that were actually very far apart from each other. The exceptionally strong winds this year made the fire pattern erratic.

The 'air of fatality', at least when it comes to fire, is pervasive though. The villagers are well aware of the risks of the fire but are unable to afford any fire-proof materials to build their houses. Forest fires are very common during hot and dry months in the summer. A 2006 study mentioned that most fires are started by farmers and livestock owners to encourage new grass growth. The rest are accidental or caused due to¬ negligence. Large areas of forests continue burning until the monsoon begins, and this becomes¬ adversarial¬ to communities like Badarjhula when strong winds become prevalent in April and May. I apologise for not explaining in the story. Hard to include everything when you have limited space.

Thank you for reading.¬

3. Indu
The study I mention can be accessed here, if you are interested:

4. Gangalal
Thanks for the comments and the link. I understand it's hard to include everything in limited space but your article is admirable nonetheless.

I was trying to form a kind of portrait of the villagers. And you do touch on various things. This is a squatter, Sukumbasi, group. Itinerant. Your article does not name it explicitly, but I suppose they're Dalits some other victims of Bahunbad.

They're persecuted by the government, which goes to the extent of using the army to set the village on fire. (The army, of course, does other things too, which are better left unsaid because with a strange twist of interests, it now allegedly protects democracy). Here all you get is a can of worms. There is, of course, a local NGO present, ostensibly to improve things,incrementally,eventually.

This is the portrait of many other villages. The thing I couldn't detect in the article was how the village actually felt about the fire and their situation. My experience with the people in similar villages was different. There was a simmering rage smoldering beneath. I heard young people talking of not taking it lying down anymore if they didn't get their land. Banduk samatna  pani tayar chaun, that's what they said. This was in 2006.

5. Indu
The village is comprised of Gurungs, Chepangs, Chhetris, Bahuns and Dalits, who came from Chitwan, Parsa, Makawanapur, Gorkha, Tanahun and Lamjung. Some were squatters in their places of origin, some were victims of landslides and floods, and lost their properties in the process. So, both man-made and natural forces in play. 

The most noticeable thing about the village was the absence of young men. A few had joined the Maoist party during the war and were still in PLA camps. Most had gone to the cities, and to India for jobs. So, in a sense, the group that would have been most willing to carry guns for land rights was absent during our visit. The older community leaders are actively lobbying government officials, both at local and national level, for their cause. Only two weeks ago, they had met the State Minister of Land Reform to discuss their case.

Thanks again for commenting, I hope I made some things clear.

6. Alice in Chains
Oh I feel sorry for these people. They are supposed to be very careful about the fire because they live near forest & I'm sure they've heard about "Wild-Fires" around the country. Hope the community gets some help from authorities to re-settle. 

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)