November 5, 2014
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Dawn was breaking as policemen and bulldozers moved into the squatter settlement in Thapathali, an area along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
Pabitra Magar remembers that day – May 8, 2012 – as the most fearful day of her life.
Squatters scrambled to remove their belongings from their homes as bulldozers steadily levelled the settlement, recalls Magar, 30.
Within three hours, all 260 homes in the settlement were destroyed.
Magar and her daughter watched helplessly as their home, which had a concrete floor and brick walls, was bulldozed, she says. The family had built the house stage by stage over eight years, using small amounts of money it had saved.
“When the bulldozers came, the settlers put children and old people in the front line so that they would stop,” Magar says. “But the police took them away and continued to bulldoze.”
Magar’s teenage son was one of the people taken into temporary custody by police that day, she says. Detainees were taken to government offices and police stations near the settlement.
“I was so scared,” Magar says. “I did not let them take my 9-year-old daughter.”
All the detainees were released by noon that day, she says.
Some of the squatters say they were not warned that the settlement would be razed.
“The government did not give any notification about the eviction,” Magar says.
Government officials deny the allegation.
The High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of The Bagmati Civilization of the Ministry of Urban Development did inform squatters of the coming eviction, project manager Rajesh Prasad Singh says. It published notices of the eviction for five months in various local newspapers, beginning in November 2011, and even sent officials into the settlement to inform people.
“People were asked to leave the government-owned property within a certain time,” he says. “People were given time to move out, but they did not move out.”
But settlers, many of whom are illiterate, say they did not see the newspaper notices and only heard of a pending eviction when other settlers spread the word.
Many rumors circulated at the time, including a rumor that all squatters in Kathmandu were to be evicted from their settlements, Magar says.
“We were unaware and shocked when the bulldozers arrived in the morning,” she says.
While the settlement was being razed, police permitted no one to enter or leave the area, she says. Her husband and son were only able to join Magar and her daughter in the afternoon, after the police and the bulldozers had left the area.
Magar’s husband, Nir Kumar Magar, 35, works as a day laborer at construction sites. When he can find work, he earns about 600 rupees ($6) a day. He cannot afford to rent even a small room in Kathmandu.
Nir Magar used to work in a house where he and his family were given accommodations. The family moved to the Thapathali squatter settlement when he lost that job in 2006.
Its home destroyed, the Magar family lived in the open, sleeping under trees, in the ruins of the settlement for three months. Using wooden poles and plastic sheets, the family eventually built a temporary hut.
The families of Thapathali do not want to leave the area, Nir Magar says. The plot of government-owned land is the only place where they can live rent-free.
“We live here because we have no other place to go,” he says. “We cannot afford to rent a place. If the government gives us land, we can slowly earn and build a house. We live here because we are poor.”
The median monthly income of households in Kathmandu Valley squatter settlements is 3,500 rupees ($35), according to the findings of a 2008 survey by the Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, a nongovernmental organization working to eliminate urban poverty in Nepal by improving shelter.
There are now about 210 huts in the unlawful settlement. Most are made of bamboo covered with plastic sheets. Conditions are crowded; in some cases, as many as three families dwell in a hut.
There is no electricity in the settlement; the squatters rely on candles, battery-powered lights and solar lights. There are no phone lines, either.
The government is now building alternative housing for the urban poor of Kathmandu, but residents of squatter settlements live in fear of being evicted again before they find long-term housing.
As of 2008, more than 13,000 people lived in 40 squatter settlements along the Bagmati River and its tributaries in the Kathmandu Valley, according to the Lumanti organization study.
People from all over Nepal come to Kathmandu in hope of finding a better life, says Lajana Manandhar, executive director of the Lumanti organization. They live in squatter settlements because they have no money to rent rooms or apartments.
Many of the squatters own no land and do not have regular jobs, she says. Some lack Nepali citizenship.
Bimala Tamang, president of the Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj, a network organization of landless women across 40 districts of Nepal, agrees. The organization advocates for the rights of landless people who have been forced to migrate.
“People living in squatter settlements have nothing, and they are very poor,” she says. “So, the government should provide land for the landless. Then people can work and build a house for themselves and earn a living. The root of the problem is that these people do not have land.”
The squatter settlement in Thapathali sprang up around 1968, Tamang says. It’s located within the city of Kathmandu and close to government facilities and services. The location enables settlers to work as day laborers in such fields as construction and domestic service.
Originating in Bagdwar, a village in northern Kathmandu Valley, the Bagmati River flows through the valley into the Terai region and merges with the Ganges River in India.
The river has great importance to Hindus; many temples and shrines are located along its banks, and the bodies of Hindus are commonly cremated on the banks. Participants in cremation rituals dip in the river or sprinkle water on themselves, believing the water offers spiritual cleansing.
However, widespread misuse of the river has made it a health hazard, says Bharat Bahadur K.C., deputy project manager of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of The Bagmati Civilization.
“The water from the river currently cannot be used as a water source because the river is being used for dumping waste and sewage,” K.C. says.
About a year ago, the committee launched a campaign to clean the Bagmati River and beautify its banks, he says.
“From an environmental point of view, there should be no settlements along the banks of rivers,” K.C. says. “It contaminates and pollutes the river.”
The Ministry of Urban Development plans to build gardens and parks along the Bagmati, he says. The cleanup of the river has already begun.
Government sources also cite the danger of flooding as a major reason squatter settlements must be eliminated.
Bhagvati Adhikari, program coordinator of Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj, confirms that the Bagmati River frequently floods, putting squatter settlements along the river at risk.
A flood in 1999 forced the relocation of squatters living along the Bishnumati River in Kathmandu, she says. In 2010 and 2011, floods destroyed 100 houses in Manohara settlement in Bhaktapur district and Sinamangal and Bansighat settlements in Kathmandu district.
“The illegal squatter settlements along the river will have to be evicted,” K.C. says.
“The eviction was partially successful,” he says. “But people again started building temporary huts. They are still staying there illegally. A stern step has to be taken to remove them.”
Some settlers who lived through the 2012 eviction are still traumatized by the experience. Terror fills the voice of Lila Thapa, 26, as she recalls the eviction.
“My daughter was only 6 months old then,” says Thapa, who lives in Thapathali with her three-year-old daughter. “I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do.”
She lost all her belongings that day and had no place to go, Thapa says. Thapa’s husband, a construction laborer, is working in Malaysia.
Evicted families did not leave the settlement, she says. Within three months, they were living in temporary huts made of plastic sheets. Thapa did the same.
Trying to evict the squatter community in Thapathali was a big lesson for the government, Manandhar says. When the families stayed at the razed settlement, the government realized they had nowhere else to go.
“I wish the eviction did not happen,” she says. “The government should have had an alternative plan for the families before they demolished the houses.”
Not all the Thapathali families stayed. Some chose to take compensation offered by the government and leave the settlement, says Yogeshwar Krishna Parajuli, development commissioner of the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, in a phone interview.
Forty-six families took the government’s offer of a 25,000-rupee ($250) grant to move out of the settlement, and another 12 families agreed to be relocated to another site by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, Parajuli says. The government agency is mandated to prepare and implement a development plan for Kathmandu Valley.
The government is working to provide remaining squatter families with alternative accommodations.
The Ministry of Urban Development started building apartments for the urban poor and low-income families in Ichangu Narayan village development committee in Kathmandu in 2012, says Buddhi Sagar Thapa, division chief of the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction of the Ministry of Urban Development.
The complex will have 227 apartments, he says. It is scheduled to be completed by July 2015. The government has not yet decided who will occupy the apartments.
After evaluating the effectiveness of relocating families to Ichangu, the government will plan similar projects, Buddhi Thapa says.
Nir and Pabitra Magar have heard about the new apartments being built in Ichangu but are not certain whom they are for. And they are not certain they would move there even if they were offered an apartment.
“If there are no facilities in that area, like schools and hospitals, then we will not move,” Nir Magar says. “I need to find a job, too. It is pointless moving there if I can’t find work."
Still, living in a temporary hut on the riverbank, the family lives in constant fear of being evicted again.
“All we want is some land where we can live,” Nir Magar says. “We will build the house ourselves. Land is all we ask for.”
Shilu Manandhar and Lajana Manandhar are not related.
GPJ translated some interviews from Nepali.