The Nepal Army, which has been constructing the 72.5km fast track to link Kathmandu with Bara district in the Tarai, says 96.47 percent of the project’s land-acquisition process has been completed. What remains unsettled are the properties in the Bungamati and Khokana areas of Lalitpur district.
The army says land-acquisition in these places have been halted over a compensation row. But the ground reality is different. The halt has more to do with the cultural significance of these two areas than land issues. The project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had hinted of the challenges of securing land for the 6 km-stretch of the expressway in Lalitpur. As the area is part of the ancient Newa heritage and a site of various cultural and religious ceremonies, the EIA report had given a heads-up to the project developer. As anticipated, there was fierce pushback from the residents of Bungamati and Khokana when the time came to open a track for the expressway.
As the town planning principles and traditional architecture of the principal cities of Kathmandu valley were transplanted to Khokana and Bungamati in the seventh century, these settlements represent not just a Newari townscape. They also have great architectural, aesthetical, and symbolic values.
Earliest human settlement in the valley is thought to have started here. Naturally, the locals are against the expressway as they fear the fast track will obliterate their closely-guarded heritage and culture. Cultural experts say Bungamati and Khokana are home to Hindu and Buddhist socio-cultural values, and local arts and crafts industry. This heritage, they say, is sustained by the locals who still practice and celebrate ancient rituals and festivals.
The expressway’s construction through these areas will destroy several heritage sites and ancient settlements—and with them a civilization.
Besides the fast track, seven other projects are proposed and even being carried out in these areas. These “development undertakings” could further impact the local heritage, fear experts.
In 1996, King Birendra had proposed Khokana for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the proposal, Khokana was described as a unique village, a model of a medieval settlement pattern with a system of drainage and chowks. The mustard-oil seed industry was called the ‘living heritage’ of the village.
Today, the entire village is at risk, says Sanjay Adhikari, a public interest litigator for natural and cultural heritage who has been closely following the fast track project.
“The 27-meter-wide expressway will destroy the proposed heritage site,” he says. “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Nepal is a signatory, as well as our constitution, advocate for the rights of indigenous people. But we are ignoring our commitment.”
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Bungamati and Khokana are well known for Rato Machhindranath and Shikali Jatra. These places are built in the shape of Swastika, according to Hindu mythology. The fast track could distort these features. Besides, there is also the risk of Katuwal Daha, a pool whose water is used in Rato Machhindranath Jatra, getting encroached, or worse, buried.
Similarly, Kumari Chaur, the courtyard of the living Goddess Kumari where the victory of Bhawani Devi is celebrated on the night of Navami, will be completely encroached by the fast track. The practice of Pahanchahre, a festival celebrated on the eve of Ghodejatra, will also stop.
The Newars of Khokana don’t celebrate major Hindu festivals like the Dashain. They rather consider Shikali Jatra as their biggest festival.
The construction of a fast track will erase these ancient villages, heritages and rare cultural practices, warns Nepal Man Dangol, who leads a struggle committee for the conservation of Khokana.
“Rather than solving the issues, the army, police, and government have been using force to suppress our movement to protect our heritage and culture,” he says. “We are determined not to allow them to resume construction here.”
Cultural functions performed in public spaces, religious structures, and agricultural lands are the foundations of these Newari settlements. The gradual shift in the economic base from agriculture to service and the demise of traditional social institutions were already endangering local culture.
Dangol fears the fast track could be the final nail in the coffin of their heritage.
The fast track also violates article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that stipulates that everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, enjoy the arts, and share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
It also breaches article 15.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and articles 7, 8 and 23 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While the fast track could potentially put the ancient villages of Khokana and Bungamati in jeopardy, the impact of its construction elsewhere is starkly different.
In the village of Lendanda in Makwanpur district, which is just a 1.5 hours off-road drive from Hetuada, the fast track is viewed as a boon.
When the expressway comes into operation, they say it won’t take them more than 30 minutes to reach Kathmandu.
“Not only will our access to hospitals and schools improve, we will also be able to build more of them right here in our own village,” says Biru Tamang, a Lendanda villager.
Roads connect nearby inter- and intra-communities with markets as well as health and education facilities. They also improve access to facilities like water, sanitation and electricity, create jobs and diversify sources of income.
Laya Prasad Uprety, professor of anthropology at the Tribhuvan University, says while road connectivity is vital to improve people’s living standards, it also comes with some negatives.
“Yes, roads can spur growth and improve people’s lifestyle, but they can also damage the culture and heritage of indigenous communities,” he says.
“Development also means an incursion of modern norms and values and they could displace indigenous culture,” says Uprety.
Rural areas, by and large, have acted as producer communities. The new infrastructures could turn them into consumer communities. There is also the risk of organic agricultural practices being displaced. For instance, it is hard to find organic agricultural produce these days as the seeds and fertilizers of multinational companies have penetrated all corners of the country.
“So, you see, the roads can be both a boon and a bane,” says Uprety.