|| SQUATTER SETTLEMENTS
In December, 2001, the then mayor of Kathmandu, Keshav Sthapit, signed an agreement with ‘Society for Preservation of Shelter and Habitat-Nepal’, (SPOSH-Nepal), a federated national level organization of squatters, and Lumanti, a NGO actively championing the squatters’ (contextualized as ‘sukumbasi’ in Nepali) demand for citizenship and landownership rights, that would effectively immunize sukumbasi communities against any kind of government-issued threat of eviction without resettlement. Fast-forward to October 2011, with the agreement still in place, the government issued notice of eviction to sukumbasi settlements on the riverbank between Teelganga and Tekudobhan.
According to ‘Bagmati Civilization Integrated Development Committee’ (BCIDC), eviction of the settlements is mandatory for implementing a sewage treatment plan as those settlements lay within 20 meters either side of the river’s boundary; a cut-off mark set by the BCIDC for technical reasons.
BCIDC is a committee formed to implement projects to restore Bagmati’s environmental health, and renovate historic infrastructures of traditional and religious value along the riverbanks (such as stone temples and rest houses), as mandated by ‘Bagmati Action Plan’ (BAP), in order to revive ‘civilization’ in the city. In response to the eviction notice, SPOSH-Nepal filed a case in court. The court responded by asking the Home Ministry to justify the eviction notice given the 2001 agreement in place, while extending the seven-day notice of eviction to 35 days. The Supreme Court’s final verdict at the end of the 35 days notice went in favor of the defendant, the Home Ministry, as the 2001 agreement was deemed lacking in authoritative power that is legally binding.
As things stand now, the government is contemplating offering the “genuine” sukumbasi, under eviction threat, a three-month rent subsidy. No plan for the aftermath of the three months is in place, while the fate of “non-genuine” sukumbasi hangs in limbo; quotation marks because it is unclear how exactly the state would want to define genuine/non-genuine sukumbasi. A one-page form that the ‘Urban Development Department’ wants the sukumbasi communities to fill and submit as a way to find out genuine sukumbasi is no more than a piece of paper containing boxes and blank spaces that require one’s age, occupation, place of birth and one or two other generic information that can hardly tell what/who is “genuine”. This is but one of many examples of the state’s crude misreading of the sukumbasi complexity in particular, and in general, a lack of concrete vision and political will in dealing with contemporary and emerging urban issues. Another example being: a government committee established to resolve sukumbasi-related land-rights issues in Nepal deliberately keeps Kathmandu outside of its focus because sukumbasi is a “rural” problematic.
Fuelled by a collective sense of injustice, SPOSH-Nepal has been organizing a series of anti-eviction campaigns that have spilled all over the city. In solidarity with sister-wings of major political parties (UCPN-Maoist, Nepali Congress, and UML), such organizing sometimes takes the form of protests in the sukumbasi basti (settlement), riverbanks, streets, public parks, and at other times as workshops and meetings with journalists and government representatives, including the BCIDC. When organized anti-eviction campaign was at its peak during last January and February, a brief sojourn to the riverbanks would almost always lead one to come face to face with a militarized state, masquerading sometimes as a wall of armed security forces cordoning off a basti, and at other times as rampaging fleet of bulldozers ready to dismantle the basti; ironic, considering how the aspirations of the urban poorfor ‘New Nepal’ at the onset of the 2008 ‘democratic-republic’ political moment was to find the state within reach when in need. Instead, the politically charged slogans, speeches, and dialogues delivered and exchanged during meetings and protests, and the aggressive response of the state at such events, together now serve as a powerful moment that reveals colliding interests around who has the authority and legitimacy to imagine what a good city is, and who has the right to live in the city.
In between 2001 and 2011, ‘slums’ on the riverbanks, inner parts of the city and the periphery have gone through major transformation, both socially and spatially. There are now over 7,000 sukumbasi households inside the Kathmandu valley, according to a SPOSH-Nepal self-survey. Increased population has also meant there is a more organized sense of community under the leadership of SPOSH-Nepal; the sense of community transcending local boundaries of a place. SPOSH-Nepal has a strong federated network of 44 districts in Nepal that has also strong ties with ‘Slum Dwellers International’ (SDI); an international organization based out of Delhi that networks squatter communities in much of the developing cities in the global South. The international solidarity is on strategic display in specific moments when members organize locally to engage issues of global significance; such as during the anti-eviction campaign demanding justice-based resettlement plan or at an international conference to share self-organizing and self-governing strategies such as accessing basic services like water and electricity or investing loan schemes through self-managed savings and credits groups for different entrepreneurial endeavors. The wealth of political capital that one can harnessfrom such socio-political self-organizing gives the lie toa general tendency to translate “poverty of place” ascribed to a ‘slum’ into “poverty of people”.
Self-organizing within sukumbasi communities also serves everyday needs. While building basti infrastructures over the years have been fueled by the need to meet basic conditions of living such as access to water, electricity and sewage lines in the face of lack of municipal rights to access such services, such everyday material necessities are also driven by an urgent emotional desire to step out of stereotypes such as ‘dirty’, ‘lazy’, ‘illegal’, and ‘illegitimate’. Ramhiti Tole is one such basti in the northeast end of Kathmandu, not very far outside of Ring Road. This is also one of the older sukumbasi settlements in the city established around 1970. Anecdotal evidence has it that before the sukumbasi communities, this used to be a place that local residents in the area would hardly tread on because it was deemed unsafe.
However, a quick walk in the neighborhood today would sketch a different story. Ramhiti Tole now serves as a space of entrepreneurship and community where tea shops, grocery stores and a locally owned garment factory sit adjacent to a public water tank servicing the neighborhood. A wide paved street meanders its way through the neighborhood while serving as a playground for children after school. The more affluent neighbors living next to Ramhiti Tole walk this street as a safe passageway to their homes after work without any fear of being mugged; there now being a collective ‘eye on the street’. Sukumbasi communities’ demands of citizenship and landownership, unlike in the past, is no longer couched in sentimental notions of “belonging to Nepal as a Nepali”. The language of “good citizens” and “able residents” that is mobilized to assert the right to live in the city finds a material basis in places like Ramhiti Tole.
One has to acknowledge the political-economic situatedness of the restoration plan as it sits uneasily on a fragmented and uncoordinated political terrain that is the current Nepali state, while the plan must have come with stringent donor conditionality as BAP is partially funded by the Asian Development Bank and Japanese Water Agency. At the same time one also has to laud the commitment shown by few members of BCIDC to restore Bagmati’s health in the face of existing challenges posed from within and outside. Meanwhile, it is also important to understand that sukumbasi communities are not against BAP as such. What the communities are against is “destruction in the name of development”; implying that restoration without resettlement shall face resistance. Resettlement in this case is demanded as a matter of right because of years of material and emotional investment that have transformed abasti into a vibrant, functional, and livable space instilled with a new sense of place-of empowerment, entrepreneurship, community, and belonging.
The state crudely misreads the sukumbasi complexity and lacks concrete vision to deal with contemporary and emerging urban issues.
‘Seeing’ such transformation would first require finding the basti-the people and the place-outside of a utopian/dystopian trope of ‘slum’ in which everyone living in it is no more than a ‘slum-dweller’; an object of romance for activists or a subject of revulsion for planners; always the unusual ‘other’, never one of the mundane ‘us’. Seen in this light, the state’s rigid handling of the urban problematic, embedded in the Sukumbasi-BAP intricacy, would make one wonder if the state deliberately fails to ‘see’ the basti as nothing more than a ‘slum’; an eye-soar that does not belong to the ‘civilized’ city.
The author, a student of urban politics, is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto