While standing as a mayoral candidate of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) in local polls, Balendra Shah had vowed to work in close cooperation and coordination with all the relevant agencies and stakeholders in carrying out any development activity. Shah must have felt it necessary considering an utter lack of coordination between and among different agencies such as the KMC, Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), Nepal Telecom, the Department of Roads (DoR), Melamchi Water Supply Project (MWSP) and Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL). No sooner had any agency built or blacktopped a certain road section than another dug it to lay down water pipes or electricity or telephone wires or manage the sewage system. That really caused a lot of distress to passers-by as well as local residents because that road used to be muddy in rainy season and dusty in dry weather.
But the energetic Mayor now seems to have forgotten his pledge to have proper coordination with other liable bodies before taking any step in regard to giving a facelift to the unplanned city of Kathmandu. His recent bid to demolish the huts of squatters located at Thapathali of Kathmandu is a clear indication that he does not want to listen to others even while removing the unfortunate lot from the riverside. Using dozers, the KMC team had aimed at destroying all the huts of the squatters, depriving them of a shelter even in this chilly season. Many elderly people, children and others have been staying there for years. The hasty demolition drive has had a negative impact on their psychology.
The KMC has now become unsuccessful in displacing them for the time being as the squatters resorted to making counteroffensives against its security officials. The childish step on the part of the local government triggered massive protests and skirmishes between the metropolitan security officials and squatters. In the fight, many security officials were wounded. The following day, the squatters also staged agitation against the nasty step taken by KMC to crack down on the former’s settlement. However, the squatters have now become more organised after the ‘dozer terror’. They have received sympathy and support from different quarters, including political leaders, rights campaigners and other members of the civil society. In his prompt response to the KMC’s demolition campaign, CPN-UML chairman KP Sharma Oli said that the local government must stop its dozer fright immediately. Nepali Congress leader Prakash Man Singh, who has lately won the election to the House of Representatives (HoR) from Kathmandu-1, had promised to work for their welfare during his canvassing.
What is more outrageous is that the KMC had taken that unpleasant move without working out any alternative resettlement plan for those squatters. The local government got involved in the demolition of the settlement to assist the High-Powered Committee for Integrated Development of Bagmati Civilisation (HPCIDBC) in getting rid of the squatters from the riverside. On November 10, HPCIDBC had issued a notice, asking the squatters to leave the place within 10 days. It was also an irresponsible act on the part of the HPCIDBC to bring out such a notice at a time when the National Land Commission has been working on this contentious issue.
It is equally notable that the commission and the KMC had reached an agreement to work jointly towards resolving the problem of landless squatters. As per the understanding, the KMC has been entrusted with the responsibility of collecting the data of the landless people living within this metropolis with the help of human resources from the commission. However, this task has been deferred since September 16 this year with the enforcement of the election code of conduct. The commission is planning to resume the process of collecting data and identifying the real landless squatters once the Election Commission (EC) announces that the poll code is no longer in implementation. The commission aims to settle the longstanding problem of landless squatters once and for all. But it requires a lot of political commitment and willpower to solve this issue. The nation has seen more than one dozen commissions over the past three decades. But such bodies have failed to fulfill their mandates accordingly owing to various reasons, including a lack of political will. Instead, such subsequent commissions have been a place just for managing leaders and cares of different political parties. Much money has been spent on this. But no satisfactory result has so far been achieved.
There has also been an erroneous practice among most political parties to cash in on squatters as their vote banks. In the Kathmandu Valley alone, there are more than two dozen squatter settlements. The political parties appear to have been making sweet promises to the squatters during elections to win over them. But the issue does not fall in their priority after elections. As long as this trend continues, the problem will not be resolved permanently.
Anyway, the Land Commission has now appealed to one and all to stop terrorising squatters as it is soon going to restart the tasks of collecting facts, verifying them, providing the genuine ones with evidences and distribution of land ownership certificates. The commission, in collaboration with the line ministries of the federal government, local governments and other responsible agencies, should move ahead with a concrete resettlement plan in order to address this issue. Like other citizens, the squatters also enjoy the right to live in a dignified manner.
(Dahal is a deputy executive editor of this daily.)