From Kathmandu to Tarai: Fast-Tracked Destruction of Indigenous Lands and Communities
Ten kilometers from the busy streets of Kathmandu City lies the simple Indigenous Newari Village of Khokana. This village is one of the first, if not the oldest, civilization of Nepal dating back to the Malla Era in the 13th century. It is also the first place in Nepal to be lit by electricity in 1911.
This tiny village has a population of around 15,000 Newar people, much of them depending on agriculture for a living. Although the villagers also gain income from wood carving, handicrafts, and tourism-related jobs, subsistence farming is still their primary means of livelihood. The village is well known for its traditional production of mustard oil.
This historic village was one of those gravely affected by the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake which led to the destruction of most of the Newar houses, local businesses, and cultural heritage sites. Three years later, it could be seen that the village is still recovering from the devastations brought about by the earthquake with construction materials from adobe bricks to metal poles lying around. Nevertheless, it still remains one of the major cultural tourist attractions in the country.
On top of a hill, a 20-minute walk from the village center, sits the Sikali Temple dedicated to the Goddess Rudrayani. One of the most awaited celebration in the village is the week-long harvest festival called Sikali Jatra. During this time of the year, the community, together with devotees and some tourists, come together to feast, dance, and perform various rituals. The whole celebration is put together by the three selected members of the community’s religious and cultural institution, the Ta-Guthi, Sala Guthi, and Jhahu Guthi.
Another feat of the Sikali Temple is the seven ancient alphabets painted on stones believed to be the scripts used by the community when they have begun writing.
From the hill top, one gets a majestic view of the mountains and rice terraces. And below the hill runs the Bagmati River which serves as the border between the districts of Kathmandu on the west and Lalitpur in the east, where Khokana is located.
Despite the seemingly rich lands and vibrant culture of Khokana, this sacred place is once again under threat – not by an earthquake or any natural disaster – but by the construction of the Kathmandu Fast Track Expressway. The said expressway is planned to run through 58 villages, which includes Khokana, threatening to displace at least 150,00 villagers and destroy agricultural lands and cultural and religious sites, including the Sikali Temple and several other sacred temples and ponds along the way up to the hill.
The Fast Track infrastructure project has begun construction work in May 2017. The Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), an organization helping the community on the case, said that it has been very hard to negotiate with the Nepali Government and it seemed that the ultimate compromise might result in re-routing the Fast Track.
The 76-km fast track project, under the management of the Nepali Army, is just one among the many infrastructure projects laid out by the government for Khokana. The government has also drawn up plans for an Outer Ring Road, the Bagmati Corridor, a smart city, and a high voltage transmission line. According to the villagers, these were all decided without community consultations nor a comprehensive plan for compensation and livelihood.
On a national scale, the Government of Nepal is undertaking numerous road and energy projects in partnership with Chinese Government under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative. Nepal entered the OBOR scheme, along with its fellow South Asian countries Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in the hopes of creating connectivity with other regions and opening up new economic opportunities for the country thru multi-billion dollar loans and foreign investments.
However, the OBOR scheme has become a ‘debt trap’ for least developed countries incapable of paying back billion-dollar loans as in the case of Sri Lanka who was force to turn over its Hambantota port to China as collateral.
At a micro-level, OBOR projects continuously cause damages to indigenous communities by forcefully displacing them out of their ancestral lands. The OBOR has also high chances of taking its toll on Nepal’s already vulnerable environment. Large-scale construction on the fragile terrain pose a serious threat to the country’s mountain ecosystem. Given the present record of companies always failing to conduct Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), it is most likely that the country’s environment and its peoples will pay the extra price for these projects in the long run.
The concept of development has been watered down by governments and international financial institutions to mere infrastructure building and road expansions that will supposedly “ease traffic jams”. Those who proclaim this kind of development fail to see that genuine development is one that is people-centered. Development is not merely measured by the abstract changes in percentages of a country’s GDP but by how the ordinary people live, or attempt to get by, day by day.
These profit-driven ventures guised as development projects have shown to always put profit before the peoples’ welfare and thus, it cannot be expected that they will carry out the process of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) that is fair and in favor to the rights of the people. Studies from other parts of Asia reported that the FPIC processes has been repeatedly manipulated, circumvented or intently bypassed by multinational and transnational corporations and other private entities, while the government either remains toothless or complicit towards land-grabbers.
International Financial Institutions (IFI) are just as involved in these projects. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) played a significant role in the fate of Khokana as it was their feasibility study that was used as basis for the initiation of the fast track project. The ADB is not entirely reputable with Indigenous Peoples in the country either. Road expansion projects funded by the ADB and the World Bank (WB) have blatantly violated not only international standards and national policies, but also their own human rights policies.
The negative implications of forced displacement, systemic land-grabbing, and cultural and environment plunder is not concerns the indigenous peoples but consequently jeopardizes the entire community’s welfare and human rights. Last March, three people were arrested as state police forces violently dispersed protestors calling out the destruction of heritage sites and displacement of Indigenous communities in Kathmandu.
A challenge to recognize the Indigenous Peoples and put an end to all forms of attacks against them and all IP and human rights defenders in Nepal is posed by the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL).
In addition, the genuine implementation of the FPIC process with respect to the new federal constitution the Government of Nepal, especially the concerned ministries, is yet to be realized. As the Government prides itself for having an inclusive provisions on the rights of Indigenous Peoples in writing, it is time to hold it true in practice. FPIC must not merely offer a certain amount of compensation or a relocation site to the villagers. Rather, it is the people’s legitimate right to accept or reject the project based on their collective decision as a community.
The Nepal Constitution states in the section on state policies relating to social justice and inclusion that “indigenous nationalities are to participate in decisions concerning that community… to ensure the right of these nationalities to live with dignity, along with their identity, and protect and promote traditional knowledge, skill, culture, social tradition and experience of the indigenous nationalities and local communities.” Moreover, earlier this year, a landmark decision by the Nepal Supreme Court supports the importance of the affected community’s participation in decision making.