Khokana, a small ancient village on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu Valley, is famous for its rich Newari culture and festivals. Newars have lived here for centuries. The place is also popular for its high quality ‘tori tel’ [mustard oil].
But the village has been in national headlines for a different reason in the past few years. The government wants to build the much-hyped Kathmandu-Nijgadh expressway through this village. The locals have rejected the plan, objecting that massive construction works will devastate the village and destroy its rich Newari heritage. They have been asking the government to change its decision, to no avail.
On July 3, police clashed with locals when the latter tried to plant paddy in their lands that the government has acquired for building the highway. The locals have rejected compensation against the acquisition.
Apart from the expressway, other projects are also planned through this village. Locals fear that the construction of the proposed outer ring road of Kathmandu Valley, a 132-KV transmission line, Bagmati corridor, and Kathmandu-Hetauda tunnel-way will ruin their abode and decimate agricultural productivity. On July 4, over 2,000 people gathered to protest government plans.
Locals say they are ready to give land for the projects in a way that doesn’t harm their cultural heritage. “We have proposed to give land outside Khokana for this purpose, but the government does not even want to discuss this option. It is trying to appropriate huge areas near the village,” says Krishna Bhakta Dangol, chair of a local committee mandated to talk to the government on this issue. “We want to protect our culture as well as our agricultural lands.”
Development planners and experts say Khokana highlights the folly in our national planning. In other places too the government has invited trouble by bypassing local people while designing projects. As they are key stakeholders in any project, addressing their concerns is vital. Former vice-chair of National Planning Commission (NPC) Jagadish Chandra Pokhrel says such issues should have been resolved during project finalization. “Khokana shows how we always make mistakes while designing projects and rue them later. It is a historic village with rich culture. When we do projects in such places, there should be broad debates and discussions,” Pokhrel says.
Pokhrel reckons that as the expressway is a big highway, it is better not to take the road through the village or keep zero-point there. “If there is no alternative, then the case would be different. But there are alternatives for the starting point of this highway,” he says. According to him, the use of force and suppression of people’s sentiments won’t do the project any good. A democratic way of running development projects is to hear the concerns of local people, he adds.
Government authorities, however, say that as project designing and compensations have already started, it would now be costly to change the design and choose a different starting point.
Environmentalist Prabhu Budathoki says the problem lies in our traditional top-down development model. The dispute in Khokana shows that development planners focus only on technical aspects while neglecting social, cultural and environmental issues, he says. For a culturally rich country like Nepal, these issues should be of paramount importance, he adds. “Both sides should sit for talks and find a solution to minimize damages. We cannot recreate Khokana village and its culture. We can only preserve them,” he says.
A logical option would be to address the concerns of the local people and divert the road a bit, even if it’s a little costly, advises Budathoki. That would be better than unnecessarily delaying the project owing to local protests, “which will be costlier than the diversion.”
In the worst case, projects even get canceled in such cases. In the past, Melamchi drinking water project and Arun-3 hydropower have been significantly delayed for similar reasons.
But it’s not always the government’s fault. Political players and vested groups also create unnecessary problems at the local level, experts point out. For instance, local representatives of opposition political parties often try to instigate protests against the government. There is also this natural tendency among people to doubt distant government representatives.
“Local people tend to doubt government officials and their work, creating problems,” says former NPC vice-chair Pokhrel. In the case of Khokana, locals are also unhappy with the compensation for their land.
Khokana residents have already submitted an application at the National Human Rights Commission demanding protection of their cultural and human rights. The expressway project was initiated two decades ago but it was soon stalled, for various reasons. The government later gave the work to the Nepal Army. The planned 76-km road, which will be the shortest linking Kathmandu and the Tarai, is estimated to take four years to complete at the cost of Rs 110 billion.