KATHMANDU, Jan 9: After midnight the dew starts falling like rain under the tent. Cold breezes from the polluted river directly strike the bodies of the squatters, abandoned on the bank of the Bagmati at Thapathali for some eight months now. Coughing, sneezing, common cold, fever, pneumonia and asthma appear common among those forced to live there.
Almost all the children, the pregnant women, new mothers and the elderly have been affected by the chilling weather. Many of the children have been suffering from pneumonia and common cold.
Asthma and respiratory problems trouble the elderly. An old man died and a woman was hospitalized because of asthma. She is in serious condition, her neighbor said.
Bhima Sibakoti, 36, another resident at the settlement, said her 16-month-old youngest son Renis has not yet recovered completely from pneumonia. "We asked the doctor to discharge our child after all our money was used up in his treatment," she said. She spent Rs 2,800 on the treatment, which was all that they had saved.
Her eldest daughter Rachana has been suffering from fever and tonsils. Bhima said she and her husband cannot sleep after 2 a.m. as the dew starts raining down. We have to cover our three children; otherwise they will die," she said.
She said her children have been sick from the day the government bulldozed the settlement. "In the monsoon we all suffered from diarrhea and now it is the cold," she added.
Landless squatters in Thapathali. (Photo: Bijay Gajmer)
Likewise, Tara Shrestha, 34, complained that all her five children including a newborn have been ailing due to the chilling weather. She recently spent Rs 1,400 treating the infant.
Her hands and feet have been swelling due to the cold but the police have not been showing any mercy. Her son Sujal, 7, used to cry in panic at night if he saw any police in his dream. "Small children at the settlement are still terrified if they see a policeman in the settlement or on their way to school," she said.
Police have been closely monitoring the settlement to make sure no permanent structure is built there again.
Kamala Rai still remembers the day Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai promised food and shelter to the squatters compelled to live under the open sky. "It was May 13 and he came to us and asked us not to worry as he would manage everything soon," she recounted.
"Either we´ll give you land and low interest loans to build houses or we ourselves will build homes for you, he had promised," she added. Bhattarai told them that he understood their compulsions. "We wanted to evict the squatters after giving them alternatives. It was a misfortune demolishing your homes without providing any alternative. The cabinet decided to evict the squatters only after providing them an alternative," Bhattarai told them.
Squatters in Thapathali. (Photo: Bijay Gajmer)
A primary school inside the settlement, with over 150 students, was also demolished at the time. Dozens of children dropped out of their studies. Kamala said she does not know whether her children have been going to school regularly. An NGO has helped get the children admitted to a community school in Lalitpur, but the children have to walk an hour to reach there.
"I have seen some children, who were sent to school, selling iron and plastic scrap," she added.
She said that she was willing to welcome the prime minister to her shack. "I have heard that the prime minister has been visiting the homes of the poor, and I´m waiting to welcome him in my home. I want to keep him here one night. I wish he will listen to our problems, " she added.
Over 250 squatter homes were demolished when they sent bulldozers to the slum on May 8 last year. Around 1,000 people in the settlement became homeless and, with nowhere to go, are now forced to live in the open at the UN Park nearby. Others have gone elsewhere. Several families could not even remove their belongings. Security personnel fired teargas shells and rubber bullets to disperse the squatters when they tried to resist.
After severe criticism from all quarters, the government decided to evict the genuinely landless squatters from the river bank and provid them Rs 15,000 for making temporary lodging arrangements.
Some of the squatters received the money. But a few were unable to receive it for lack of citizenship certificates. They had deposited their citizenship certificates at cooperatives to take out loans for building their homes.
"Some cannot pay their dues on time and the cooperatives do not give us back our citizenship certificates," said Suman Chaudhary, secretary of the Landless Scatters´ Struggle Committee (LSSC).
Prime Minister Bhattarai had entrusted Keshav Sthapit, commissioner of Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority (KVTDA), with resettling the squatters evicted from the Bagmati at Thapathali. The KVTDA chief tried to relocate them at the disused Himal Cement Factory but the locals objected. He then tried to shift them to Sundharighat but the locals of Kritipur staged strong protests.
The Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC) had said that it had purchased five ropani of land at Ichangunarayan for the resettlement of the evicted squatter families. But no progress has been made.
Chaudhary said LSSC has decided to submit a memorandum to the prime minister to find a permanent solution to their problem.