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Dipu Maharjan for Global Press Journal
A view of Paurakhi Basti, a settlement along the Bagmati River in an area of Kathmandu known as Thapathali.


With eviction looming — again — all they want is what Nepal’s constitution says they are due: a place to call home.

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Januka Pokhrel only has foggy memories of Morang, the district in eastern Nepal where she was born. What lingers is the sense of precariousness. She did not have a house. She was married off at 13. By 15, she was a mother. By 19, she was a mother of three.

In 1985, she moved to Kathmandu, roughly 400 kilometers (nearly 250 miles) away. Her family continued to expand: She would ultimately give birth to nine children. “At the time, the husband had to sign off on a woman adopting family planning measures,” she says. Her spouse, who struggled with alcoholism, eschewing all responsibility for raising their children, refused.

As Pokhrel’s family grew, so did the city around her. In 1950, just over 400,000 people lived in Kathmandu Valley. Today, more than 3 million call it home, an increase of more than sevenfold that has increased the pressure on land and resources. Pokhrel, who lived on the edge of the city at the time, scraped together a living by cleaning other people’s houses; but what she earned was barely enough to make rent. In 2006, when people from across Nepal came to Kathmandu as part of the national movement against absolute monarchy, some of them settled along the Bagmati River. That’s when she discovered that if she built a shed, she too would be able to live by the river for free.

Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
Januka Pokhrel has lived in Paurakhi Basti, along the Bagmati River, since 2006.


Flowing through the Kathmandu Valley, forming a watery boundary between Kathmandu and Lalitpur before heading south to join the Kamla River in the Indian state of Bihar, the Bagmati River occupies an important place in local imagination: It is considered the source of Nepali civilization. Hindus and Buddhists in particular regard the river as holy. Platforms for cremation, called ghat, line its banks, alongside temples and millennia-old stone water spouts. 

When Pokhrel first moved to Kathmandu in the 1980s, she would go to the Bagmati to bathe her children and wash clothes. The water was clean enough to drink and clear enough to spot the fish within. She’d find gleaming coins, offerings made to the river at the historic Pashupatinath temple complex, designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The banks of the river were sandy, fringed with farms where Pokhrel would work during rice-planting season.

As the city grew, it became more industrialized: hospitals, carpet factories and other industries began appearing along the water, replacing agricultural land. By the time she began living by the river, in the mid-aughts, there were piles of garbage everywhere: glass, plastic, needles and other medical waste — on occasion, even fetuses from a nearby hospital, she says. The stink was overpowering; diarrhea was common. There was no electricity or drinking water. The new arrivals cleaned a patch of land next to a riverine forest, in an area known as Thapathali. They christened it Paurakhi Basti — “settlement of valorous people.”

In 2009, a few years after Pokhrel and her family moved to Thapathali, the government embarked on an ambitious plan to tackle the chronically polluted Bagmati River. An implementation authority, today known as the High-Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization, would construct sewage pipes, wastewater treatment plants and greenbelts. But Pokhrel and her neighbors were not the intended beneficiaries of this intervention; rather, they were seen as obstacles. Under the plan, any kind of activity — commercial or residential — was forbidden within 20 meters (nearly 66 feet) of either side of the river. This meant the eviction of 14 settlements on the banks of the Bagmati and its tributaries — including Paurakhi.

More than a fifth of Nepal’s population does not own land or is unable to prove they do, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme.

Dipu Maharjan for Global Press Journal
Paurakhi Basti — translated as “settlement of valorous people” — emerged along the Bagmati River in the mid-aughts.

The number of people living on land or in buildings for which they do not have a valid land ownership certificate, known locally as Lal Purja — or who rent from people who also do not possess the certificate — has increased over the years, especially in the Kathmandu Valley.

In 2012, there were 73 informal settlements in the valley, home to more than 29,000 landless people, according to the Nepal Landless Democratic Union Party. Most of them — more than four-fifths — lived along the banks of the many rivers crisscrossing the region. One explanation for this tendency is the ambiguous nature of this land: Originally part of the riverbed, much of it is untitled, with no clear ownership.

However, the plan to restore the Bagmati River put these informal settlements under direct scrutiny. “It is our job to put sewer pipes on both sides of the river and beautify public lands,” says Birendra Thapaliya, spokesperson for the implementation authority. “Because of the slum settlements, we are unable to do so.” He says there are 63 rivers and rivulets in the Kathmandu Valley in need of protection. 

Things first came to a head in 2012. Pokhrel remembers it vividly. On the night leading up to May 7, 2012, a curfew was imposed across the settlements in Thapathali. At 8 a.m., authorities began bulldozing houses. Many of the those living in Paurakhi had hoped that the Maoist government, formed in the wake of a 240-year-old monarchy after an armed struggle, would work to regularize their homes. So they were crushed, she says, when their homes were destroyed under former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, a prominent Maoist leader.

Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
Jhawarlal Urao, who first came to Kathmandu in 1988, was evicted from Paurakhi Basti in 2012.

Jhawarlal Urao, born in the eastern Nepali district of Sunsari, also lived in the settlement at the time. A member of the historically marginalized Urao caste, who have typically never formally owned land, he came to Kathmandu in 1988 and found work as a day laborer, weaving carpets and hauling bricks. His contractor often would not pay him on time; as a result, he would fail to make rent on time. So, like Pokhrel, he moved to Thapathali. Initially, there were 100 homes — eventually, there would be 258.

He too remembers the forced eviction of 2012. Thousands of police officers had been mobilized at the site before anyone had woken up. There was no time to save anything; he was left only with the clothes on his back. The residents were taken to the police station and released only when the settlement had been demolished. “Seven people miscarried,” he says, “and two lost their minds.”

At the turn of the century, an estimated 8,000 people were living in informal settlements in the Kathmandu Valley, according to a report from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. In 2010, that increased to about 17,000.

The latest population count, carried out in 2019, found over 28,000 people living in 65 informal settlements in Kathmandu Valley, according to a study published in the Nepal Journal of Mathematical Sciences. Most of the settlements lie on the banks of the valley’s rivers, including 11 spread along the banks of the Bagmati River.

The government tears down settlements housing about 10,000 people along the banks of the Bagmati River, while promising to provide them with long-term alternative housing. However, massive upheaval in the government follows, and the 10,000 people are left without homes.

Thousands of security forces clash with residents of the Paurakhi Basti settlement as the government demolishes over 250 huts and a primary school just steps from the Bagmati River. Nearly 1,000 people are left without homes.

The Asian Development Bank begins funding a nearly $79 million project along the Bagmati River to beautify the riverway, install water storage facilities and set up flood forecasting systems.

Construction is completed on the Ichangu Narayan housing project, meant to resettle those evicted from Thapathali with the help of low-interest loans. The squatters refuse to move across the city to the newly-built apartments, which are deserted to this day.

Kathmandu’s mayor orders around 300 police officers and three bulldozers to clear the Paurakhi Basti settlement. Residents resist, injuring 18 police officers. Two days later, while the mayor halts the eviction, the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority orders everyone living in informal settlements along the Bagmati River (an estimated 17,500 people) to vacate their homes within 35 days.

Special rapporteurs from the United Nations send letters to the government of Nepal and to the president of the Asian Development Bank, asking for an end to the illegal evictions.

All sorts of rumors circulated in the wake of the forced eviction. The UN was involved, some people alleged. “Whoever managed to destroy the settlement would get a 10% commission, so they came without informing the prime minister,” Urao says. The demolitions were condemned by rights groups within Nepal and by international organizations like Human Rights Watch. Authorities demolished 251 huts, but ultimately only around 46 families received compensation. Those affected were made to fill out a form, Urao says, and received 15,000 Nepali rupees (112.50 United States dollars) as three months of rent. They were told to go to Sundarighat, an area by the river over 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) away. But the people already living there protested, so some went to other informal settlements. Others returned to Thapathali.      

For a week after her home was demolished, Pokhrel slept under the open skies, holding her children tight. It did not make sense to her to accept the payout offered by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority: Would she use it to feed her children or pay rent? She decided to stay put, sleeping under a tarp and removing it before daybreak to escape police harassment. Eventually she cobbled together enough money to buy old wood to erect a shed. Today, there are 244 huts in Paurakhi, only a handful less than the number of original structures.

Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
A housing project in Ichangu Narayan, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, was originally intended to resettle people from another informal riverbank settlement before taking in evicted residents from Paurakhi Basti, located 10 kilometers away in the Thapathali area of the capital city. Today the complex is mostly empty.

In July 2012, a few months after the demolitions, construction began on a housing project in Ichangu Narayan, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) away from Thapathali. “That complex is especially for unmanaged dwellers,” says Pradip Pariyar, then-spokesperson for the Ministry of Urban Development. Initially purchased to resettle people from another informal riverbank settlement — known as Gaurigaon — it was repurposed for the evicted residents of Thapathali.

In 2014, a year before construction was completed on the project, Urao and others from Thapathali were taken for an apartment visit. Ichangu Narayan comprises four buildings in two compounds, each five stories high. Each two-room unit is 400 square meters (4,300 square feet) with a living area and a bathroom. The residents of Thapathali were not consulted about alternate housing, says Urao, and none of them relocated there, citing high prices, the distance from the city center where most of them work, and no public transportation or schools. Today, the complex is mostly empty: the yellow color on the exterior walls is fading and the water tank has begun to leak. Some apartments house the local police station and ward office.   

There are examples of successful relocations in Nepal, activists say, pointing to Kirtipur Housing Project, in which the city of Kathmandu worked with a local nonprofit to relocate 43 families affected by a road construction project in 2002. Decades later, the families still live there. On the other hand, the Ichangu Narayan project appears to have been doomed from the start. Thapaliya, the spokesperson for the implementation authority, says that the Thapathali residents don’t want to move at all. “They say they want the land they have been living on. They don’t want to move because the land they live on will fetch millions of rupees.”

But Urao has a different explanation. “That complex was constructed just to show that work is being done for the slum dwellers,” he says. “We were asked to deposit 26 lakh rupees [19,545 dollars]. If I had 26 lakh, would I live on the riverbank in constant fear?”

Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
Bimala Tamang, founder of Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj, which works for the rights of landless women, sits for a portrait in her home in Ramhiti, one of the oldest informal settlements in Kathmandu.

Bimala Tamang lives in Ramhiti, one of the oldest informal settlements in Kathmandu, in existence since at least 1971. She moved there in 1988 after her marriage; she carried bricks and bags of sand to build her home. Even then, there was talk of eviction. “At the time, there was no policy about slum dwellers,” she says. While fighting to save her home, she visited 14 areas across Kathmandu and, in 1998, founded Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj, which works for the rights of landless women. “Now, the Constitution ensures the right to housing. Even then, the problem of slums has not been solved.”

In 2021, the government of Nepal updated its land policy so that squatters and landless Dalits could receive title to land, subject to certain conditions. However, progress has been forestalled over the question of who exactly is eligible. The Nepali term used to refer to squatters is sukumbasi, which literally means a person who has no house for shelter, no private land for cultivation and no other livelihood opportunities. (It is not a term most informal residents use for themselves.) Activists and researchers point out that this creates a certain amount of confusion in debates with Nepal on the entitlements of squatters, since people who have legal ownership of even a very small piece of land in their place of origin, often co-owned with others and insufficient for survival, are not technically covered by provisions made for squatters.

In order to distinguish between landed and landless squatters, the government is required to verify the land record — known as lagat — of the residents of informal settlements, says Nahendra Khadka, spokesperson for the National Land Commission. The residents must declare that they do not own land anywhere in the country and must provide ancestral details. People are given time to file requests at their local ward offices to independently verify any land they may inadvertently own or have inherited. If they are found to have lied, they are subject to punishment and any land granted to them may be confiscated. There is no statutory limit.

“All that people are asking is for their lagat to be collected,” says land rights activist Jagat Deuja, “and if they are real slum dwellers, then to manage them properly. But there is lack of coordination between various government agencies to complete this process.” 

Khadka agrees that there has been no organized effort to collect data. “Commissions were formed in the past,” he says. “Regulations were insufficient and the record system ill-managed. Kathmandu did not fall under the jurisdiction for many such commissions.” Lagat collection, identification and verification, he says, is the work of the local government. “There is no room for blaming each other.”

Khadka adds that 724 local municipalities have an agreement with the land commission and 688 of them have already issued a notice for lagat collection. Per the data collected so far, there are 147,269 “slum dwellers” and 712,771 unmanaged “slum dwellers” across the country. 

But the metropolitan city government of Kathmandu, where the issue is most pronounced, has not collected lagat and has a markedly different take. “The river has to be clean at all conditions,” spokesperson Nabin Manandhar says. “Our job is to beautify and protect the heritage. We are not concerned with individuals. We are only concerned with whether the structure is legal. … Collecting data is the job of the land commission. Our job is to evict.” 

Today, 244 families live in Paurakhi in makeshift structures with tin roofs, which leak during the rains, and walls made mostly of jute bags and bamboo or, very occasionally, brick.

Dipu Maharjan for Global Press Journal
The specter of eviction continues to loom over residents of Paurakhi Basti, as the government attempts to clean up the chronically polluted Bagmati River and “beautify” the surrounding area.

On windy days, the sheds clatter and sway. The hand pump spits out iron-tinted yellow water. During monsoon season, residents worry that their homes will be washed away; in the winter, with decreased water flow, the sludge of raw sewage causes the river to freeze over, resulting in bone-biting cold.

During one such winter in 2022, the new mayor of Kathmandu — engineer-turned-rapper-turned-politician Balendra Shah — ordered bulldozers into Thapathali. A few months earlier, during election season, he had come to canvass for their votes singing “gharib ko chameli bolidine kohi chhaina,” — “nobody speaks for the poor” — his take on a popular Nepali song. Many mobilized to get out the vote for Shah, hoping that the young engineer would work for their benefit. But here he was — having ignored the National Land Commission’s notice to collect lagat within 35 days, Khadka says — ready to evict the squatters of Thapathali. 

This time, residents were not willing to leave without a fight. As the standoff escalated, the mayor backed off. But the specter of demolition continues to hang over Thapathali, Pokhrel says. In May, the finance minister announced that all “identification, dataset collection, verification and mapping of landless Dalits, squatters and unorganized settlers will be completed” and “land ownership certificates will be distributed to 25,000 landless individuals in 110 local levels through the Land Commission in the upcoming fiscal year.” In July 2023, the parliamentary committee on infrastructure development directed the government to clear all unmanaged settlements along the Bagmati River within six months.

Pokhrel is not sure what the coming months will bring. “It is always the poor in peril,” she says. “Because of the fear that the metropolitan government will bulldoze the house, I have not planted a vegetable garden, nor have I done any maintenance work on the house.” All she wants is for the Kathmandu municipal authorities to collect her lagat and inform her which category she belongs to. She does not want a big house or land. She just asks for “a breath of relief.”

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