Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Squatters threaten agitation for free land

By Razen Manadhar

KATHMANDU, May 22[2001] - Nearly 17,000 land-less people living in various areas of the Kathmandu Valley are threatening to take to the streets if the government fails to provide them ownership certificates of land they have squatted upon for years. But, the issue being a complex one, officials are still muddled in their response.

The squatters are asking the government to let them live on the river banks legitimately where they have been doing so for the past two or three decades. "Otherwise, we will take to the streets and will even launch demonstrations," said Dipak Rai, the secretary of Nepal Settlement Protection Society (NSPS), one of several squatters’ organizations in the Kathmandu Valley.

However, government agencies have been muddled in their response. Over a dozen of government commissions have been formed to solve the squatters’ problem in the last one and a half-decade. But none of them have focused on finding a solution to the problem of Kathmandu squatters.

Member secretary of the present Squatters’ Problem Resolution Commission, Tirtha Prasad Ligal said finding solution for the squatters of the Kathmandu Valley is not their responsibility. But he does concede, "The problem is quite complicated. The squatters’ problem in the Capital is artificial and only a bold decision can solve it."

But Rai, the general secretary of Nepal Settlement Protection Society (NSPS), refutes such claims. "We left our villages because the property we had was not adequate enough to meet all our needs. It is for the government to provide us food, cloth and shelter in the city." But he admits that many are not as pathetic as they appear to be. "Many of the landless people here have lands in their villages and some of them have huts in several settlements here."

The trend of squatting on public land - generally on the river banks - started in 1960s, thanks to the quiet encouragement given by the local representatives in the hope of creating vote bank. But more than three decades later, the squatters’ problem in Kathmandu has become a ticking time bomb.

Along the banks of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers, several squatters’ villages have cropped up, becoming an eyesore to metropolitan authorities. NSPS volunteers say that there are nearly 17,000 landless people living in 66 settlements in the Capital city, each of them comprising of up to 186 slum households. The biggest is Pathivara Tole behind Chabahil. Other noteworthy settlements with over 100 households are Ramhiti, Bauddha, Sankhamul, Khadipakha of Maharajgunj and Jagriti Tole of Nayabazar, Balaju.

Along with the poor families, many well-off squatters live in huts or concrete houses with colour TVs and even motorcycles. They say that they work as drivers, labourers and shopkeepers. Some are even employed as government staff, teachers, soldiers, police and so on.

The squatters’ organization defines themselves as those who have had to come to the Capital displaced by natural calamities. At the same time, there are those who came in search of better opportunities leaving their parental properties behind in the villages.

The Kathmandu Mayor, Keshav Sthapit, says he is drawing up a plan to bring all the squatters under a system. "This problem is in an alarming state. We will verify the squatters first and if they are found possessing landed property in the villages, then we will confiscate their land."

The metropolitan authorities plan to provide alternative land at minimum cost to the squatters. "However, they must first abandon the river banks for this is not a proper place to live in," Mayor Sthapit said.

But the squatters are unlikely to heed his call just yet. Part of the reason is, along with the free land, they also get free basic services from well-meaning non-governmental organizations. The Lumanti Support Group for Shelter (LSGS), for instance, is providing free education, water and sanitation to squatters in several areas. Critics say, such free schemes could become a magnet to attract more squatters.

Director of LSGS Lajana Manandhar said that the organization is helping the "urban poor" community. "The government must make a policy to control the flow of people to the city and help manage the existing unmanaged settlements," she said.
[Kathmandu Wednesday May 23, 2001 Jestha 10, 2058.]