When the entire country was reeling under the corona crisis, the residents of Khokana, an antique Newari village with rich traditions, also had to fend off the police. Infringement of their right to cultivate land and violent attack on the local community go against the ILO 169 provision on land, which recognizes people’s right of ownership and possession of lands they traditionally occupy. Further, the ILO convention calls on the State to safeguard the right of the people to the use of lands on which they rely for subsistence and traditional activities.
Accusing the locals of trying to illegally plant paddy along the 300 ropanis of the land acquired for the Kathmandu-Terai expressway, the police opted for heavy intervention, against which the otherwise calm locals retaliated. With over five years of dillydallying in compensating for the acquired land, thereby breaching several agreements, the State’s intent to dishonor the rights of the local community had already been exposed. Even as the land worth billion of rupees had been accounted at a very low price, the planned attack on the settlement raised some troubling questions about our development process.
Further, the locals asking the police force to arrange for those who understand their language as a condition for talks signals the growing mistrust of the centralized system that considers development as its prerogative. The lukewarm State response to the socio-cultural and emotional needs of Khokana locals has not only sparked aggression and hatred among the community, but also posed grave questions about the vision of our development: What are the values of our development? Which principal actors are shaping the development agenda? What is the State’s perception of local communities’ role in this development?
Overemphasis on economic pursuits has been the hallmark of our development. A close look at the history of planned development in Nepal shows a focus on infrastructure and technology. So development and prosperity are equated with the successful completion of national pride projects in hydroelectricity, irrigation, and agriculture. There is no harm in advancing economic dimensions of development. What is of concern though is the dismantling of socio-cultural ethos and values. Whether in the case of the decision to push ahead with the Nijgadh Airport defying the Supreme Court order or the recent action against Khokana dwellers, economic development at any cost remains the priority.
Development endeavors in Nepal have traditionally treated local communities as adversaries. The State has historically been apathetic to the protection and promotion of age-old traditions and values that characterize these communities. More worrisome, the indigenous knowledge systems of communities are considered impediments to modern development.
A blanket approach to development without accommodating community voices and concerns appeared in the Khokana case too. In fact, the State still wants to settle outstanding conflicts with communities solely from an economic point of view. With a false belief that community resentment is only about financial compensation to acquired land, the State is mulling a financial deal without bothering about local demand for restoration of the unique heritage and culture of the place. This leaves the root cause of the conflict unaddressed.
The crucial questions of development—‘For whom?’, and ‘By which process?’—have not gotten much attention in our development discourse. The discourse has instead appeared incompatible to the need of our communities and cultures. Various obtrusive forces have penetrated our system, thwarting local initiatives. The high-handedness of international and regional development actors in shaping Nepal’s development policies is a testimony to this. Development initiatives in Nepal have thus catered to a few privileged groups—donors, project managers, contractors, bureaucrats, and policymakers.
It is important to think beyond the confines of the centralized system and authorities to include the perspectives of local communities in designing development policies and programs. Listening to grassroots voices and finding mutually beneficial ways will be vital to the sustainability of our development endeavors.
The author is an independent writer and researcher