Thapathali squatters thwart another evictionKathmandu Metropolitan City met with stiff resistance as it tried to tear down Bagmati riverside squatter huts.
Anup Ojha & Prithvi Man Shrestha
For the past one month, seven-year-old Merina Rana Magar, who lives in a squatter settlement in Paurakhi Tole, Thapathali, has been asking her father, Min Kumar, every single day before leaving for school: “What will happen if our house is demolished, where will we go?
In response, the father would reassure her that their house would remain intact.
“I would tell her that we would move to a better home when she completed her higher studies and found a job. That was before today when the Kathmandu Metropolitan City personnel came here with an excavator along with a large number of security personnel, and terrorised each one of us,” said Min Kumar, a father of three, including Manoj, a 19-year-old plus-two graduate, and Manika, a 16-year-old student of Class 9 at Vishwa Niketan Secondary School, Tripureshwar.
Merina, who studies in LKG at Vishwa Niketan, was born in the squatter settlement in Thapathali. Rana had got married to his wife Manju, who is now 46, soon after coming to the Thapathali settlement two decades ago.
“Not only my daughter, my two other children as well as my wife had been asking me where we would go if the settlement was demolished, and now their worst fear is coming true,” said Rana Magar, who has a corrugated tin roof shack partitioned into four dark rooms by plywood. “I too have no answer, all of us here are agitated.”
Rana Magar is himself the chairperson of the Utpidit Sukumbasi Sangh (‘Association of oppressed squatters’).
After the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation issued notice for a third time on November 11 to the squatters to move out by November 20, the Magar family was having sleepless nights in the fear of imminent eviction.
As Rana Magar feared, the municipal police tried to demolish the riverside squatter settlements on Monday met with stiff resistance from the squatters.
As a result, the Thapathali area was tense all day, more so after the squatters threw stones and bricks at the municipal police, injuring over a dozen of its members including chief Raju Nath Pandey.
A press statement issued by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) on Monday evening accused the squatters of using sharp weapons and injuring 18 police officials, three of whom are being treated in intensive care.
Following the clash, around 200 municipal police personnel deployed there, backtracked. Pandey said the situation didn’t go out of control as they exercised restraint. After the incident, the squatters protested by erecting human barricades, burning tyres, collecting stones and bricks and chanting slogans against Home Minister Bal Krishna Khad and Kathmandu Mayor Balendra Shah. Many stood there with bamboo canes on hand, ready to protest.
Later, a large number of security personnel, including those from the Nepal Police and Armed Police Force, were deployed around Thapathali Chowk and Norvic Hospital areas.
“We are ready to die, but we won't leave this place without being given a proper alternative,” said Narendra Tamang, 29, who was burning a tyre at the entrance to the squatter settlement.
“The state is using Mayor Balendra Shah to evict us. This is unwise,” said Jeevan Tamang, Narendra’s brother. He said his family came from Belaka Municipality of Udayapur district when they were small and they have since been living in Thapathali. The family owns no land, according to Tamang.
On Monday, after learning that the Metropolitan City was bringing its bulldozers to the squatter settlement, a large number of squatters from various parts of Kathmandu reached the Thapathali area to join the protest against the planned demolition.
“We have not said we won’t vacate the current squatter settlements. But the government should first arrange alternative places for us to stay,” said Menuka Khadga Karki, 55, who had arrived on the scene from Sinamangal to join the protest.
Essentially, clearing the settlements along the Bagmati banks falls under the jurisdiction of the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation.
But Kathmandu Metropolitan City has also been aiding the federal government agencies’ efforts to remove the settlements as well as what it says are illegally-built houses. This appears to have angered the protestors, as they chanted slogans against the mayor.
“We started the drive after the committee asked for our help. Keeping the city and its rivers clean also comes under the jurisdiction of the local governments,” said city police chief Pandey, who sustained an injury to his right hand.
Amid a tense environment, the police said it had abandoned the demolition drive for the day. “We decided not to press ahead,” a senior police officer at the Metropolitan Police Range, Teku said on the condition of anonymity.
Right after the high powered committee issued the notice on November 11, issuing an ultimatum to vacate the area, a large number of squatters had marched from Maitighar to New Baneshwar on November 18, protesting the ultimatum. The committee has been implementing the $ 78.80 million Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project since April 2014. The project has a completion date of May 2025.
According to the committee, at present, as many as 34,096 squatter families are living on the banks of the Bagmati river. Because of the eviction notice, more than 900 squatters around the Thapathali settlement have been living in fear.
“We have seen Mayor Shah demolish illegal structures elsewhere and today his office set upon us. We are landless people and if the government finds that we own land anywhere, we are ready to face legal consequences,” said Harimaya Jimba, 49, a mother of five children and a resident of the Thapathali squatter settlement which has 145 households with a total population of around 900 people.
The high powered committee said the squatter settlement has become a major obstacle in its efforts to carry out beautification and drain out the sewage along the Bagmati corridor.
The committee is one of the implementing agencies of the Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project. It aims to establish a system for an integrated and participatory river basin management, including formation of a river basin organisation for Bagmati, improvement of river bank environment in urban areas, ensuring increased water availability during the dry season, watershed conservation, and making flood forecasting and early warning system in the Bagmati river basin functional. The Asian Development Bank is helping the project.
In its social monitory report released in July this year, the Asian Development Bank stated that the existence of the squatters’ settlements on the river banks is one of main reasons for the deterioration of the Bagmati river over the past five decades.
But the high powered committee in its own resettlement plan has talked about minimising forced eviction of squatters.
“While large non-title holder housing settlements [squatters] are present in the project area, the project will minimise involuntary resettlement impacts and leave these settlements unaffected,” the resettlement plan states.
“Specifically, the Sukhumbasi Basti [squatter settlement] on the right bank will be avoided and the river embankment beautification discontinued beyond the heritage walk which extends all the way directly down to the riverbank.”
On Sunday, when the Post asked a senior official of the high powered committee about whether the planned demolition drive at Thapathali went against its own resettlement plan, the official didn’t want to give a direct answer.
“The committee is responsible for deciding whether or not to demolish squatter settlements. I cannot give an answer on the matter immediately,” said Subhas Basnet, the project manager.
For this project, the Nepal government and the ADB agreed to compensate the non-title holders (squatters) for the structures affected during construction, and to compensate for the loss of crops and trees.
In fact, there had been efforts to move the squatter families to other places by demolishing their structure in the past, which yielded no results.
In May 2012, the Baburam Bhattarai-led government demolished 251 squatter huts in Thapathali by deploying over 1,000 security personnel. To relocate the squatters, the government had then built a settlement at Ichangu Narayan in Nagarjun hills, spending Rs 230 million. The project proved to be a disaster as nobody moved in.
“The committee had even taken us to look at the buildings in Ichangu Narayan, but the rooms there could barely accommodate four people. Each and every squatter family here has more than five members,” said Min Kumar, the chairperson of the squatter association. “Shouldn’t the government give us a better option to where we are now living? Also, by going there, we won’t get the jobs we do in Thapathali. That place is too far for the working class people.,” he added.
At present, the abandoned and now decrepit buildings built for squatters are being renovated. The Nagarjun Municipality under whose jurisdiction the area falls has been taking care of the three buildings inside the compound.
“We didn’t like the fact that such a big infrastructure was not being used,” said Mohan Bahadur Basnet, mayor of Nagarjun Municipality. During the pandemic, the municipality had converted a part of the buildings into a temporary shelter to keep around 350 Covid patients.
“Now we have given some of the space to Manav Sewa Ashram [a charity for the homeless] to house some 350 homeless people, and we also have ward-1 offices as well as an area police station in the buildings,” said Basnet.
He said there would be no problem in vacating the buildings if the government decided to settle squatters there.