Bulldozing not the solutionThe government must bring policies to address the needs of the citizens without homes.
Ever since he took office last year, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) mayor Balendra Shah has been on a mission to make Kathmandu modern, sleek and developed, and perhaps get rid of the poor who may otherwise be an eyesore to the sukila mukila urbanites. At least, that is what his decisions seem to reflect. What’s more, the metropolitan police persistently chase street vendors off the streets, forcibly taking away their carts and supplies, thus depriving them of their incomes. The metro police have also repeatedly tried to bulldoze and demolish slums and informal settlements.
In March, the mayor directed the KMC office to issue a directive to the people living in slums and informal settlements along the river banks in Kathmandu to vacate the areas. The residents were given a week’s notice, but fortunately, the Patan High Court suspended the demolition order with an interlocutory order. Later, the High Court commanded the government of Nepal, including the KMC, to arrange housing for the people who do not have alternative housing.
Instead of bulldozing the settlements, the KMC must comply with the MoU it signed with the National Land Commission on August 25, 2022, to expedite the joint verification of “landless squatters” and people living in informal settlements in Kathmandu. The city lacks initiatives and coordinated efforts with other state agencies towards addressing the housing issue. Its haphazard and inhumane demolition drives have often led to protests and clashes between the authorities and the residents, inviting more trouble than resolution. For instance, on November 28, 2022, the city attempted to forcibly evict residents of informal settlements in Thapathali, leading to violent protests where around two dozen municipal city police personnel were injured.
The confrontation between the squatters and the metropolitan authorities began more than a decade ago in 2012, when the then Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai demolished 251 homes in Thapathali by deploying over 1,000 security personnel. Bhattarai was carrying out the evictions in the name of a “beautification” project of the Kathmandu Valley, particularly the Bagmati Corridor, as planned by the High-Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilisation under the Ministry of Urban Development. The ongoing project aims to restore religious shrines along the banks of all 11 rivers and rivulets flowing through the Kathmandu Valley, by building sewerage systems and corridors, cleaning the rivers and beautifying sidewalks. The current evictions called by Balendra Shah are part of the same “beautification” project.
While a project to clean and maintain river systems in Kathmandu Valley is a step in the right direction, this must be carried out without any evictions and human rights violations. As a result of this project, many people have been rendered homeless, and many more remain at risk. According to government data, as many as 34,096 families reside on the banks of the Bagmati. It is the government’s duty to protect human rights, including the right to adequate housing and the dignified life of people affected by the project. Yet, providing adequate housing for all remains one of Nepal's human rights and development challenges. As estimated in the National Census, 49 percent of Nepal’s population lives in substandard housing.
International human rights law recognises that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including proper housing. Similarly, every person has the right to acquire and maintain a secure home where they can live in peace with dignity. Large-scale evictions, including in the context of development projects, must be accompanied by relocation plans to protect human rights, including housing, health, water, sanitation, education and work. The standards also require governments to consider the needs and rights of marginalised groups, including women, older people, children and people with disabilities.
According to the UN, evictions should only be carried out in exceptional circumstances and in full accordance with relevant provisions of international human rights law and standards. States should adopt legislation to prohibit forced evictions and ensure that, prior to carrying out any evictions, all feasible alternatives to evictions are explored in consultation with the affected persons.
Nepal’s Constitution also guarantees the right to adequate housing. Article 37, on the right to housing, clearly states that: (1) Every citizen shall have the right to appropriate housing; and (2) no citizen shall be evicted from the residence owned by him or her nor shall his or her residence be infringed except in accordance with law. In addition, Article 16 states: (1) Every person shall have the right to live with dignity.
Despite constitutional protection, thousands of families living in informal settlements across Kathmandu live in perpetual fear of their homes being demolished—with little warning and no alternative housing being provided. It is the duty of the state to ensure that everyone has the security of tenure and is adequately protected from forced evictions. This is even more urgent in the case of people living in informal settlements, many of whom belong to marginalised sections of society and are often living in abject poverty, are not literate, and are constantly working in the informal sector and on low wages.
In 2012, after a massive eviction drive, the government built a resettlement site at Ichangu Narayan in Nagarjun hills for the evictees, spending Rs230 million. The project proved to be a disaster because nobody moved in. Evictees expressed their dissatisfaction at not being consulted during the construction period and refused to live in a place where public transportation was relatively inaccessible and jobs were unavailable. The suitability of location is vital to the right to adequate housing. Housing must be located in a manner that provides access to work opportunities and essential services such as health-care services, schools, childcare centres, etc.
Instead of bulldozing homes, that too without adequate alternative housing and infrastructure, or without providing adequate compensation for families, the government should engage with people affected by development and urban regeneration projects to ensure that the human rights of all are respected, protected, and fulfilled and no one is left behind. It must provide equal opportunities for all, including education and employment. The government must also develop policies and plans to address the needs of citizens without homes as well as the marginalised.
The government, including the KMC, should remember that people do not live in informal settlements out of choice but out of necessity. They do so often because it is their last and only option. The problem runs much deeper, revolving around poverty and inequality. Bulldozing people’s homes does not solve anything; it just sweeps larger, deeper issues of injustice under the rug.