BIRENDRANAGAR, NEPAL — Three and a half years ago, Govinda Koirala began building concrete sheds on the land where rice, wheat, maize and mustard once grew. “We had land all over Birendranagar,” recalls the 50-year-old professor of peace and conflict studies at Mid-West University. Much of it was cultivated through a sharecropping arrangement with the Tharu people, who have lived in the region for centuries but often have no land of their own. “On bullock carts, the Tharus transported the food to us. Production was bountiful and our mothers also sold the food.”
That was three decades ago. As the municipality urbanized, food production declined and Koirala sought alternative means of earning income from his land. “I constructed long rooms to rent them as warehouses for sand and iron grill industries and as car mechanic shops,” he says. Koirala makes 100,000 Nepali rupees (about 764 United States dollars) per month in rent. “So why should I get back into agriculture?”
In 2018, Birendranagar became the capital of southwestern Karnali province, triggering a sharp rise in population. The city was home to just over 100,000 people in 2011, a number that ballooned to nearly 155,000 by 2021, according to census records.
As people pour in, residential and commercial structures proliferate, often at the expense of agricultural land. “Earlier I cultivated between 10 and 15 kathas of land,” says farmer Thir Bahadur Karki. A katha is a unit used for measuring land area in parts of South Asia; in Nepal, 1 katha equals 338.63 square meters (3,645 square feet). “Now I farm between 2 and 4 kathas,” he says. As production decreased — in part because increased construction disrupted irrigation pathways — Bahadur Karki says he “sold off the land when I received a good price.”
According to the land survey office for Surkhet district, where Birendranagar is located, 14,143 units of land in the municipality have been sliced into smaller and smaller plots over the past five years, now amounting to 37,682 units in total. Inward migration is the primary reason, says Rajendra Thapa, chief of the land survey office. Nearly 3,000 houses have been constructed in the past five years in the municipality, with 688 constructed since July 2022, says Mohan Karki, the office’s mapping representative for Birendranagar. “Some of the houses constructed in the last few years have been in the lower area,” Karki says, “which the master plan had designated as agricultural land.”
Until the 1960s, the inner valleys of Nepal’s southern lowlands — including Surkhet, where the municipality of Birendranagar would later take root — were sparsely populated, in part because the tropical climate made the region a hotbed of disease. In 1965, malaria was eradicated from the region, leading to an influx of people from the surrounding hilly areas, who transformed vast stretches of forest into farmland. In 1973, less than a year into his rule, King Birendra issued an ordinance for the development of a township, laying the foundation of present-day Birendranagar. It has been 50 years since the master plan for the city was developed.
“I was told to do a 20-minute briefing on Birendranagar, but it lasted for nearly six hours,” says Madhav Bhakta Mathema, chief architect of the plan, recalling his audience before the king. “I shared my plan to develop Birendranagar between the Itram and Khorke rivers.” His plan also included two other features: a designated area for health care developed through local investment, and land south of the Ratna highway earmarked for agriculture.
Chandani Kathayat, GPJ Nepal
Earlier this year, as his airplane descended into Surkhet, Mathema noted that Birendranagar had changed. “I saw a lot of houses to the south that I did not even recognize,” he says. “I was satisfied when I saw the plants and trees. I have a deep relationship with those plants and trees.” In 1975, he recalls, he brought gulmohar saplings from the Indian city of Lucknow to plant along the roads of Birendranagar. A flamboyant species, gulmohar blooms bright orange in May. “It cost 100 rupees per plant, which was really expensive at the time,” he says. While agricultural area has decreased with increasing urbanization, vegetative cover has remained largely stable: around 60% in 2020.
At present, 30.18% of municipal land is cultivated. Landless communities such as the indigenous Tharu people are reeling from the reduction. For the past four decades, Kangla Chaudhari, 68, worked on land owned by a zamindar — a large landowner — from neighboring Dailekh district. He had enough to eat all year from his share of grain grown on 4 bigha — equivalent to 80 kathas (over 6.5 acres) — of land. “Now the zamindar has parceled out his land,” he says. “Now that settlements have thickened, it is hard to find land. Once real estate agents started constructing roads to sell off land in 1 katha chunks, agricultural land was stamped out.” These days, he subsists on the 4 kathas of land that he received from a previous sharecropping agreement.
Mathema says it is now time for municipal authorities and residents to revisit the master plan. “It is necessary to plan Birendranagar not just from the point of infrastructural necessity but also environmental beauty, which has been vanishing with the increase in population,” he says. “When we say ‘planned,’ people only want a big city. A planned development is one where there is a balance between present and future necessity.”
Graphics by Matt Haney, GPJ
In a policy announced in May 2022, the municipality stated that agricultural land could not be divided into plots less than 675 square meters (7,266 square feet). Meanwhile, Nilkantha Khanal, deputy chief of Birendranagar, points to the introduction of a policy to re-incentivize owning agricultural land. “The common man thinks that to possess agricultural land is to have land of lower value,” he says. “We will work to prioritize the farmer by making agricultural land equal in value to residential land.”
Tanka Prakash Lamichhane, chief of the municipality’s land use center, says implementing land use policy is a matter of urgency. “We should have brought out this policy earlier — it is already late. Now houses are rapidly being built in arable land. The municipality has already crossed a threshold of ruin. But we should not panic.”
Despite profiting from the municipality’s rapid urbanization with his commercial rentals, Koirala agrees. “If we don’t think of Birendranagar’s future, then we will fall into the trap of food insecurity,” the professor says. The municipality does not track total food production, but according to the agricultural market management committee, 7,328 metric tons (8,078 tons) of fruit and vegetables were imported from India in the first eight months of the current fiscal year. “It is necessary to take steps to prevent Birendranagar from becoming a concretized city like Kathmandu,” he says.
Chandani Kathayat, GPJ Nepal