A city dividedLast year’s earthquake—that forced most Kathmandu’s residents to live in tents and make-shift tarp shelters—has not helped the city empathise with the deplorable conditions of its squatter communities
Saturday, at early dawn, the water tanks lined up at the top of a posh apartment tower at Bainsighat, Teku are overflowing. Towering over the banks of a perpetually murky Bagmati, walking into the complex can feel like a time-warp, particularly considering the squalor of the community in its immediate vicinity. The slums at Bainsighat exploded onto the national consciousness in the summer of 2014 when two French artists painted the ramshackle houses in the neighbourhood in bright Technicolor hues and along with them the facade of a 19th century Shiva temple. Two years later—now—the barge of indignation that spontaneously arose on social networking sites and at citizen’s forums seems to have ebbed away. Looking down at the slums from the dizzying high-rise, life, it seems, has moved on—as it invariably always does. Below, some of the children, dressed smartly, are readying themselves for school; others are lined up at a hand-pumped well with bright yellow buckets. A light breeze wafts the ripe odour from the river into the neighbourhood and both the nouveau riche and the perpetually poor who have come to call these floodplains their home let out a collective sigh.
A little further upstream, Parmeshwori Devi is settling down on the Thapathali bridge with a steel can to collect alms from pedestrians who are rushing past her—their breaths held to avoid the stench. On Saturdays the footfall at the bridge plummets and with it does her earnings. Parmeshwori, who is in her mid-30s, is blind and scrapes a meagre living for her family off the kindness of strangers. The occasional din of coins being tossed into her bowl bring a sense of security, even if they are few and far in between. Below at the river banks, the Bagmati Clean Up Campaign is in full-swing. Flanking the river on both sides, volunteers have arrived in hundreds—wearing surgical masks, gloves and gumboots—and plunge headlong into the river, hauling out dokos of trash. Had Parmeshwori been able to see, she’d notice that the army of citizen cleaners are not venturing into the squatter settlement under the bridge that she calls home. The ‘trash’ there, it seems, will have to wait another day.
Parmeshwori and her husband, Saltu Mukhiya (who is also blind and bed-ridden with a kidney ailment), relocated themselves from Gatliya, a small village in Siraha district, and have called the Thapathali squatter shanty-town their home for many years. Both of them lost their eyesight to financial constraints. Parmeshwori lost hers gradually over the years; with no explanation from the few doctors she could afford to consult. Saltu, however, blames his impairment to the carelessness of doctors who prescribed medicines which led to his disability, rather than healing it. The couple have lost three of their children and their only remaining child is currently under foster care.
“There are times when Parmeshwori and I are absolutely helpless. People take advantage of our disability and even the few goods that we manage to buy get stolen,” laments Saltu, “There are days when we sleep on empty stomachs. Both our families refuse to help us; they think of us as burdens because we cannot see.”
In 2011, the government helmed by Baburam Bhattarai, attempted to clear the squatters living in the Thapathali area (and other settlements in Kathmandu), the memories of which still haunt Parmeshwori and Saltu. The entire community, including the blind couple, were rounded up and held at the Metropolitan Police Station, Maharajgunj, for three days. When they returned to their homes, they were all gone; the government had demolished the shelters leaving them with no alternative but to sleep in the open air. “All the other residents claimed their items and built their shelter within days but we had no one to aid us,” Saltu says. “There are many squatters who can see and do small jobs to at least get some food on the table. But by taking away our homes we were completely helpless, and felt the extent of our disability then,” he adds.
Saltu asserts, “At present the government has taken the initiative to clean Bagmati and remove the squatters. In about five years, the project will come to an end. Our stay here is uncertain. We are genuinely in need of help, and we would request them to show us some mercy.”
The High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation (HPCIDBC), a government project, is working towards cleaning the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers. Established in 2051 BS, the project aims to make parks, remove the squatters and clean the river. Rajesh Prasad Singh, Project Manager of HPCIDBC, claims that the project will end in the next five years accomplishing all its requirements. Singh, who confirms the 2011 attempt to relocate the squatters, is also quick to mention, “It is a fact that during Baburam’s prime ministership, squatter settlements were destroyed, but they fail to mention that the squatters were given Rs 15,000 each to relocate. There are signed and verified documents to prove this as well.”
Singh stresses that the government should bring proper guidelines for the squatters and to those working towards making the city a cleaner place to live. “The government urges us to clean the Bagmati area by removing the squatters. And when we do that, other government bodies like the Kathmandu Metropolitan City go to console the squatters. How is it fair to us? We are only trying to do our job,” he says.
Recently, Singh and his team were asked by the government to remove squatters from the Sinamangal area to make way for a park. When they finished the project, the park’s responsibility was then handed over to the Metropolitan Police Station there. But after a while, the squatters were back at the newly made park erecting their shelters. “We felt like all our work went down the drain. Even the police couldn’t do anything to eliminate them, he says.
The issue of slum dwellers and squatters in the Kathmandu Valley is not new, and seems to resurface every few years, only to seep out of the public consciousness all over again. Although comprehensive data and analysis on slums, slum dwellers and squatters are unavailable, a study in 2005 identified 137 slum neighbourhoods in Kathmandu, with 6,985 households and 31,463 people. In the Kathmandu Valley, between 1985 and 2008, 17 smaller squatter settlements had expanded in size and number to 40 settlements and 2,735 households. A 2013 UN Habitat report points out that the increase of slum settlements in cities are linked to limited economic growth in rural areas and the impact of natural disasters and conflict. ‘Better job opportunities’ was the reason given by 70 percent of squatters migrating to urban areas. Lack of economic opportunities in rural areas, inadequate access to financial tools, lack of enhanced knowledge and skills, and the absence of safety nets for rural households are considered underlying causes for migration to urban areas.
At Balkhu bridge downriver lives a family of three, who are juggling a myriad problems of their own. Rajkumar Khatri, a 37-year-old man, has been living in the slum there for the past 12 years with his wife Nirmala Khatri and his three-year-old daughter Angel. “My three-year-old daughter keeps asking me when she will go to school, but I don’t have an answer for her,” Khatri says. In an attempt to earn some fast money, Khatri even went to work in Qatar but had to return disappointed and empty-handed; he never got paid by his employers. Khatri laments, “All my efforts have gone in vain. And even when I try looking for jobs, I always end up coming home disappointed. My wife earns Rs 40 a day by doing manual labour, that is how we are sustaining ourselves right now.”
“Living right next to the dirty sewages is risky for our health, especially for my daughter. We wear masks day in and day out. And we are tired of losing sleep over the thought that our roofs can be taken away from us any day. We don’t know when things will be better, but I hope it comes soon,” he adds.
Raju Tamang, a squatter himself, is the General Secretary at Society for Preservation of Shelter and Habitation in Nepal (SPOSHN), that is fighting for the rights of squatters living around the Kathmandu Valley and other places around the country. He alleges that the government does not have a clear solution or a road-map regarding the resettling of squatters. He asserts, “Although, the government has decided to give houses to squatters in Icchangu Narayan, the houses are priced at Rs 12 to 13 lakhs each, which is a steep price to pay for people with regular jobs, let alone squatters. SPOSHN has tried negotiating with the government several times. They make promises, but they amount to nothing.” The housings set-up at Icchangu remain vacant.
The issue of squatting is by nature a political one and one that does not have an easy fix. Even Baburam Bhattarai, who had enjoyed fair popularity during his prime ministership, faced unprecedented backlash from within his party and society at large at the seemingly draconian attempt to clear out the squatter settlements. Other attempts to resolve the issue, by preceding and subsequent governments, have been equally unsuccessful.
And this coming together of these vulnerable communities and of those who want to sanitise the city and its non-aesthetic tinsel towns is one that gets swept under the rug time and again. Santosh Shrestha, who is the media co-ordinator of Bagmati Clean Up Campaign—now in its 153rd week—informs, “The project is infinite, and the campaign’s main purpose is to clean the river as much as we can.” Shrestha also mentions that the campaign doesn’t want to entangle itself in relation with the squatters and the political baggage that comes with it.
“But if not the government and its various bodies, then who?” questions Tamang. “Last year when the earthquake came, literally everybody in Kathmandu Valley—whether rich or poor—was forced to live like squatters, if only for a few days.” That experience, Tamang had hoped, would have helped citizens empathise with the larger problems that the squatting community face on a day-to-day basis. That eureka moment, however, is yet to come. And until that day, Tamang and the rest, continue to live with what dignity they can afford in a city that they have come to call home. “If you trace it back far enough, we are all descendents of squatters after all,” he says with a ponderous smile, “lest those in their high-rises forget.”