The power and cultural rights of the numerous indigenous groups in Nepal are diminishing in the name of development. Inclusive politics have been a part of the democratization of Nepal, and efforts have been made to empower marginalized groups. Nepal has for instance ratified the ILO 169 convention, a document that ensures the indigenous population their cultural rights. But their cultural heritage and land access are being threatened right across the country.
Chaos in Khokana
The bus reaches Khokana village on a hazy day the villagers have chosen for a festival to present and promote their ancient Newari culture. Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and local politicians mount the stage set up in the village square. Teens play music in traditional clothing, and food stalls and dance troupes line the streets. Unfortunately, the festivities have a darker side.
I meet Nepal Dangol, who shows me around town. He is kindly greeted by many people along the way and we end up at the edge of village. We are overlooking yellow mustards fields that stretching towards the hills and mark the end of the Kathmandu Valley.
“All of this will be lost,” Nepal Dangol says with a grave look on his face. “The government is planning to capture everything.”
Khokana is being threatened by the ever-increasing urbanization of the Kathmandu Valley. The government has plans for eight major infrastructure projects in the vicinity of the village. The festival has been arranged to showcase the uniqueness of the village and to highlight what would be lost if the government goes ahead with its plans.
The plans include a fast track-highway to the Indian border, an outer ring road, a so-called Smart City, a high-tension line, and a railroad. All these projects combined will take up 80 percent of the village land and traditional agriculture will be history. The community and most of its households are built upon a structure their farming traditions and knowledge provide. Farming not only provides food but also a communal structure of cooperation and a sense of belonging.
My guides for the day, Nepal Dangol and Krishna Bharan Dangol, explain to me that they would accept one or two projects, but not all of them. They understand the needs of Kathmandu Valley and the Nepali government, but if all the planned projects are realized the village will have to be dispersed—something that is unacceptable to them.
The government obviously needs to improve the country’s infrastructure, but at what cost? Who has access to Nepal’s development? Khokana is unfortunately not the sole example in Nepal. The government’s development plans spread across the entire country, and the local population often has to deal with the consequences.
Our jeep travels on bumpy roads along the Marshyangdi and connecting rivers. It is an uncomfortable ride and I repeatedly bump my head against the ceiling. In the valleys and along the rivers most of the villages belong to the Gurung community. We meet people who complain about wells and farmland that dry up, noise pollution from heavy traffic and constant construction, landslides due to explosions and heavy machinery, and the disappearance of fish from the rivers. The culprit for these undesirable changes? The many hydropower plants are being built in the area. But many households in the area are not electrified and few people benefit from the new power projects. The generated electricity will instead be sold in India and Bangladesh.
Tunnels are being built to redirect the rivers to turbines, which affects the environment. As we travel up the Marshyandi River, power plants and construction sites line the mostly dry riverbed. Farmers tell us about how their fields are now useless since the river hydrate the turbines instead of their fields. The communities along the river depend on farming and fishing for a living, which means the already vulnerable communities are now more marginalized.
Most villages have been forced to build new channels and dig alternative wells. They still await compensation. The local politicians I talked to seemed incapable of supporting those affected and said all the decisions were made at the national level. The licenses to exploit the natural resources have been granted, and the numerous power companies that operate in the area have the right to do so. However, the local Gurung communities no longer have the right to fish.
Failing the natives
Sadly, this is a universal problem. Being Swedish, I often hear in Nepal that I come from a great country, famed for equality, welfare and as a protector of human rights. It is true to an extent. I enjoy a comfortable citizenship that comes with numerous benefits. However, I am sad to see big similarities in the way Nepal and Sweden treat their indigenous populations. In the Swedish cold north, the Sami community used to have a vast tundra to herd reindeer, deep forests to hunt, and big rivers to catch fish. The Swedish government now fills its treasury with money from mining, forestry and hydropower plants that exploit the old land of the Sami. The resources are exploited in the north and the profits and benefits end up in the south.
Unlike Sweden, Nepal has ratified the ILO 169, an international document that ensures indigenous populations their right to maintain their identity and culture. Access to land and maintaining traditional ways of life is major part of indigenous populations’ culture, and the two issues often go hand in hand. To maintain traditions, Gurung and Sami communities need access to natural resources. If these resources are limited, their culture is also threatened.
Sweden has chosen not to sign the ILO document to be able to exploit the land of Sami communities; Nepal has chosen to ignore the document even though it has ratified it.
After visiting Khokana and Lamjung, I saw that the government of Nepal ignores the right of indigenous populations and has its eyes only on economic development. Preserving ancient traditions, cultural heritage and identity are not prioritized. We need improved roads, and Nepal’s hospitals and households need power. However, one needs to question who are being effected by development. In my last month in Nepal I heard many stories about villages being lost and small-scale access to resources being limited. Indigenous communities are losing their rights, but Chinese cement factories and tourist attractions can enjoy increased rights.
Nepal promotes itself as a multicultural society with a model national charter. Nepal is a democratic and inclusive on paper—now is the time to become inclusive in practice. It needs to protect all of its citizens, Brahmins and Gurungs alike.
The author has an MSc in Global Studies from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden