Three months on, evicted squatters have nowhere to go
OM ASTHA RAI
KATHMANDU, July 25: When Keshav Sthapit, Kathmandu Town Development Commissioner, accompanied by a television crew, reached the Bagmati river bank on Tuesday, he was instantly surrounded by curious landless squatters.
Although he was there only to give an interview for a television show, talking while walking by the bulldozed huts of the landless squatters, who were evicted from the UN Park behind the Maternity Hospital two months ago, Sthapit had something to share with the displaced.
"We´ve changed our plan," Sthapit told the evicted squatters. "Now, we´ll not shift you to Sundarighat." The former Kathmandu mayor also assured that an alternative arrangement would be made within the next couple of days. When asked if the new place would be as good, he said, "Trust me. It´ll be much better."
After two days of Lalitpur shutdown by the locals against the relocation of the evicted squatters to Sundarighat, the government has eventually backed off, instructing the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority (KVTDA) to explore a new place for the temporary resettlement of the evicted squatters.
According to Sthapit, the government is constructing some permanent blocks in Ichangunarayan, Kathmandu for permanent resettlement of the squatters. "Until the permanent arrangement is made, we will keep the squatters somewhere else," said Sthapit.
However, the evicted squatters, who are still living on the Bagmati river bank even after the government bulldozed their huts on May 9, are skeptical about the KVTDA´s plan. "We can´t say we don´t believe KVTDA since Sthapit is a man of action," says Indra Tamang, coordinator of a struggle committee formed by the landless squatters against the ongoing evacuation drive. "But, we can´t completely trust him, either."
The landless squatters´ skepticism does not seem unnatural. Earlier, the Department of Urban Development and Building Constructing (DUDBC), which was originally entrusted to relocate the squatters, decided to shift the evicted squatters to Chobhar. However, DUDBC backed off after the local people of Chobhar warned of strong agitation.
Then, DUDBC chose Balaju, only to abort the plan following stiff resistance by the locals. The locals were up in arms even in Baudha Ramhiti near Mahankal when DUDBC decided to shift the squatters there. In Sundarighat, the situation almost spiraled out of control when the government flirted with the idea of using force against the locals.
The government´s failed efforts to relocate the evicted squatters undoubtedly demonstrate how indifferent the society is about their plight. "We´re not being treated like humans," Tamang says. "The society has forgotten that we´re citizens too." However, Tamang says he is not particularly upset with the locals who refused to let the squatters live close by them. "I´ve no grudges whatsoever against the locals," says Tamang.
"Most of them are blissfully unaware of our pathetic condition. It´s the government that made a huge mistake by not making an alternative arrangement before forcibly displacing us."
As the locals of the Kathmandu valley disown the evicted squatters, altogether 1,057 people -- including women, children and elderly -- continue to live under makeshift tents. Until monsoon became active, the police tore down even their ramshackle tents every morning.
"Thanks to the rains, the police now do not touch our tents," says Kale Majhi, who has been living on the river bank with his family of four since 2007. "I don´t say I must be allowed to live here forever. But, I need some place for my family."
On May 8, the government had bulldozed 258 houses of squatters to implement its plan for developing a corridor along the Bagmati River. Three days later, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai promised to relocate the evicted squatters within another three days. Three months on, the squatters are still homeless.