This picture in the story is not of a communist China, or totalitarian state North Korea, theocratic Iran or Saudi Arabia, or autocratic African countries where the state confiscates the private properties of a political opponent. It is happening in Khokana – a little town of Newa: indigenous people group on the outskirt of the capital city in Nepal. The farmers were trying to till the ground for rice plantation on 29th June. Nepal Police and Nepal Armed Force (APF), a paramilitary force, showed up armed with their rioting gears in the field. They tried to stop the farmers from working in their land. A heated argument between the police and the local civilians and activists took place. The landowner and the general public demanded why they should not plant rice in their land. The customary answer from police and Army for decades was and is, “Order from above,” insinuating the involvement of a high-level cabinet ministry or a bureaucrat. [To watch videos of the police repression on the farmer, click here].
What is this debacle all about? How did the farmers from Khokana find themselves surrounded by the armed police in their own property? How did one of the ambitious projects of the Nepal government turn into a total fiasco? The answer lies in between the thin line of how the government planned this whole project dubbed as national pride. When the government invited tenders for Kathmandu-Nijgadh Fast-Track (freeways) road project, the Nepal Army was also one of the bidders. They won the tender. They are now in charge of the project. They encamped in the land they rightfully acquired for airborne training by Bagmati riverbank. They owned that land even before the upturn of the political system in the country in 1990. [For the last two and a half decades, they left it unused after a couple of mishaps during the parachute jump training.] They promptly encroached the private land owned by locals from Khokana and fenced with barbwire marking the perimeter. They barred the landowners from entering their property or farming it. Now that it is a no-brainer for the general public to understand why they won the bid in the first place.
The government of Nepal and the Army might have thought that the acquisition of land would be a walk in the park. They believed that they could confiscate the land by instilling fear in the hearts of local farmers should they would not give it voluntarily. In reality, it did not work out well as they planned. First and foremost, farmers are not paid fair compensation for the land. They have a right to demand fair evaluation of their property and restitution for their ancestral land. When they were denied fair compensation, they did not accept a scanty reimbursement proposed by the government. The money would not suffice to buy another piece of land elsewhere. Second, the government should be fair in their criterion for compensation. People of other ethnicities in different rural districts are recompensed more than fair market evaluation. Land price varies depending on the region and the types of land. Plain farming land in the vicinity of the capital city has been historically the priciest. In this regard, the reparation ought to be fairer than the hilly areas, prairies, or marshes. The Department of Land Reform and Management cannot say otherwise since their record shows the property tax is higher in the valley with some exceptions. So, something does not add up here; hence something fishy is going on.
Next, Nepal is a landlocked and agricultural country. Two-thirds of the population depends on agriculture. Yet, the plan to promote agriculture is merely confined to either catchy slogans or political speeches on World Agriculture Day. The country has been importing grains more than it is exporting any. The national deficit is running high for the past couple of decades. Prime Minister K.P. Oli-led government claims to be for the marginalized and farmers. However, the farmers and farm-related businesses around the country are the hardest hit amid the pandemic. The government is sleeping on the fact that they could have done more to alleviate the suffering of those farmers. On the contrary, they are seizing the fertile agricultural land in places like Khokana, Bungamati, and their neighboring towns. How should we understand their ostensible oxymoronic message sent to the public?
Additionally, the Army’s involvement was not uncontroversial from the genesis of the project. They grabbed the private citizens’ land without compensating them even before they had the Detailed Project Report (DPR) on hand. The government prepared the DPR 20 months after laying the project’s foundation. This raises a serious question on the Nepal Army’s role and its intent in the project. They violated the parameters of the project appraisal and its procedure. Upon the request made by the State Representative, Ms. Pampha Bhusal, the Army reviewed the DPR. Yet, they unmitigatedly ignored the compatibility with the expansion plan of the utility and region. The cultural activists protested the alignment of the road that goes through the historical sites Kudesh. It is believed to be the old settlement of indigenous Newa: from the 4th century AD. They sought help from the Nepal Archeology Department for excavation of the site but of little avail. It can be concluded from their little interest that they were either under political pressure or afraid of land mafias or both. So, the civilians dug the sites themselves and proved their case by presenting centuries-old bricks, clay pots, utensils, and well buried underneath. Nevertheless, the government gave the Army green signal to go ahead with their plan once violating the statutory clearance process by ignoring the historical archeological sites. They also disregarded the socio-economic features of the area and the inevitable negative impact on the lives of farmers. I need to make myself clear that the farmers are not against the acquisition of their land. They are against the government’s discriminatory compensation proposal. The government has failed in its rudimentary task of checking the availability of land, approvals, and clearance for acquisition before they laid the groundwork for the project.
This is one of the classic examples of systemic oppression on minorities from the one ethnicity-based authoritarian government since the inception of a supposedly unified country of Nepal in AD 1768-69. This time around, the government has planned systemically to displace indigenous people group from the valley by either taking away their land or demolishing their homes in the name of road expansion development or building highways, smart-cities, outer ring-roads, etc. This could have been easily averted by planning different routes alongside the river bank or uninhabited and barren lands by the hills. Instead, they aligned and realigned their project plan to make freeway through the historical, archeological sites and agricultural farmlands. Above mentioned few other projects on the pipeline are also aligned in the remaining lands in Khokana and its neighboring towns. That will do immeasurable damage to the very existence of already state-suppressed and discriminated indigenous people group from their ancestral land.
These projects are administered by vulture capitalists wearing a mask of Marxian Communist and the Nepal Army as their henchman with disaster capitalism complex. They began to spread their tentacles aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2015 where they applied the Milton Friedman’s economic “shock therapy” to those who were already shocked from losing their homes to the natural disaster. It displaced three-fourth of the total population in Khokana alone. They had no choice but to take a meager compensation to put their lives back when the government offered them the money for their land. The government has yet to spend billions of dollars pledged by the international community in rebuilding. Those who did not take money from the government still owned the land and would give it away for its right valuation. This is where the government sowed discord between “compensated” and “yet to be compensated.” The ones already received money cannot return it and the other group will not take it until paid fair and square. This opened up a faulty line between two groups in the community, and ever since it has only widened. In the meantime, some felt “forced” to receive compensation have lost their voice to protest against injustice.
The initial budget for the project has already doubled due to price hike on construction materials, a slower pace on laying the groundwork as clearing the woods, constructing the supporting walls on the hilly areas to protect the road from landslides. The recent report suggested that the Army has not even started building any preliminaries but eighteen bridges and tunnels. All this chaos will prolong the completion of the project despite the Defense Minister’s claim to finish it in 2021.
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