Rethinking settlementLet’s imagine Kathmandu Valley as a vast agricultural land with a few clustered towns like the days of yore. How much would this Valley that is blessed with enviably fertile soil have produced if it were not the concrete jungle that it is today? Enough, you would think, to easily feed itself and even those beyond.
Let’s imagine Kathmandu Valley as a vast agricultural land with a few clustered towns like the days of yore. How much would this Valley that is blessed with enviably fertile soil have produced if it were not the concrete jungle that it is today? Enough, you would think, to easily feed itself and even those beyond. The Valley’s prosperity, even opulence, in the past was, after all, built on the solid foundation of a vibrant agrarian culture and economy.
That romantic, pastoral vision of Kathmandu, however, is long gone. According to a study conducted last year, urban area in Kathmandu Valley expanded up to 412 percent in last three decades and most of this expansion occurred through a conversion of agricultural land. The report estimates that 31 percent of Kathmandu’s agricultural land was repurposed for housing between 1979-2009; “with the city still growing along roads in a concentric pattern, significantly altering the landscape.”
It might not be possible to reverse Kathmandu’s unchecked urbanisation, but it is crucial that the same haphazard expansion is not replicated elsewhere as the federalisation process encourages decentralisation. You can already trace an outward flow of people from the hills into the fertile Tarai in the past decades, with reports of paddy fields being carved out for land plotting becoming increasingly commonplace. And the last thing the country needs is several other Kathmandus.
At first it might make sense that the policy of concentrating people in a particular settlement is seen as favourable. Arguments could be made that it is easy to provide services to the residents if they lived in clusters rather than fanning out over the countryside. But how has that logic worked with the suffocatingly overcrowded Kathmandu? The urbanisation has brought with it an acute shortage of water, dangerous levels of air pollution and a perennial thirst for more energy. The city is choking for open spaces, with its residents literally being thrown out into the streets after the 2015 earthquakes.
Is this a model worth replicating?
Already, short-sighted policies have encouraged a mass exodus from the hills into the flat plains. According to the book Land Cover Change and Its Eco-environmental Responses in Nepal, the share of Tarai’s population has increased from 38 percent in 1981 and 48.4 percent in 2001 to 50.4 percent in 2011. Of 58 urban centres all over Nepal in 2011, 29 were located in the Tarai, which covered 44.3 percent of the total urban population, with an annual growth rate of 3.2 percent. In the hills, the families are leaving in droves, never to return. And the pressure this puts on the largely unplanned towns and cities in the plains should not be left unaccounted for.
Look at, for instance, the recent announcement of the temporary provincial capitals for the new federal republic. Out of the seven temporary headquarters, five are in the Tarai, with the two others being housed in Pokhara and Surkhet valleys for the moment. In time, should the HQs not be relocated, we are running headlong into a future where seven more overpopulated, energy guzzling, polluted, unsustainable cities rule the roost in each province. And for the headquarters based in the Tarai, it would most likely entail urbanisation that spirals outwards, swallowing the fertile “bread basket” whole.
I, having been born and raised among the undulating hills of Tehrathum, remain partial to its lifestyle and moderate climate. When I do visit the Tarai, it can seem like quite a testy terrain. Sweltering in the summer months and blanketed in a thick all-consuming fog in the cold. What it does boast are fertile lands with promises of bountiful harvests and access to an increasing network of infrastructure.
The hills and the mountains, on the other hand, are emptying out for the want of roads, water, schools and health facilities. With young males migrating out of the region for foreign employment, increasingly their families are being driven to migrate with the remittance money because of the growing scarcity of water and labour. This, in turn, only makes it even more difficult for the state to provide services. For instance, the plummeting number of students enrolled in public schools is already making teachers redundant in a lot of places. With such an outflow of people from one place to another, it is only natural that the services migrate as well. And the cycle, thus, churns on and on.
The natural environment also remains inextricably tied to wanton urbanisation. Its peril can already been seen in the Chure belt above the Tarai. Unchecked mechanised extraction of natural resources from riverbeds and low hills has caused siltation in the rivers that cut through the Tarai. This is often blamed on for the flooding in the plains every year. Damage to the Chure’s ecology will eventually impact groundwater recharge as well, with environmentalists warning of water shortages and eventual desertification of the Tarai.
Were some well-placed schemes for drinking water and irrigation initiated, the exodus from the hills—and its seen and unforeseen effects on the fertile flatlands—might be plugged yet. And who knows, the hills, with their cool climate, green pastures and promises of cash crops might yet spark a reverse migration.
For now, as we march into a brand new world of federal governance, we can only hope that the people’s representatives and the powerful federal units will pay attention to problems that the centralised system of government failed to tackle. At least, we can still salvage the fertile lands. Unlike Kathmandu, it mustn’t be allowed to march to the brink.
The writer tweets @GuragainMohan