A recent Nepal Rastra Bank report suggests that property price in Kathmandu Valley is increasing at the rate of 27.7 percent a year, doubling the real estate value every 3.5 years.
In fact, almost every developing area of Nepal is witnessing this phenomenon. Property-price appreciation is starker still in the Madhes province and the Tarai towns of Sudurpaschim province.
Generally, in developing countries like Nepal, when an infrastructure project starts in an area, the value of nearby lands go up. And this is true in the case of Kathmandu-Tarai fast track.
Almost 30km of the 72.5km expressway passes through agricultural land, which also includes some residential areas. There are two big settlements along the way: Khokana-Bungamati of Lalitpur and Nijgadh of Bara, which are also the start and end points of the under-construction motorway.
Land prices have soared in Khokana-Bungamati and Nijgadh. But then it is not just the fast track that is driving up land values in these areas.
Many high-profile people are buying lands from locals and pushing their value with the help of realtors, claim locals.
When this reporter asked residents of the Shikali temple area in Khokana about the skyrocketing land value, they said ministers, ex-ministers, senior politicians, senior civil servants, judges, and other celebrities have made significant investments in local lands.
These individuals are allegedly working in cahoots with realtors to jack up property prices.
Some residents of Khokana also accuse the activists and leaders campaigning against the fast track of succumbing to greed and selling their lands.
The people of Khokana and Bungamati have long been protesting against the expressway project, which, they fear, could erase the culture and heritage of these two ancient Newa villages.
Nepal Man Dangol is among the leaders of a struggle committee against the fast track. But some villagers have accused him of “double standard” for selling a plot of his to the army and buying off properties close to the project site.
In his defense, Dangol says he let the army acquire his land as he urgently needed money. The decision to sell the land was “approved by the struggle committee,” adds Dangol.
He also doesn’t believe land prices in Khokana and Bungamati have been deliberately inflated.
“In the outskirts of Kathmandu Valley, land prices have reached over Rs 5m an aana (an anna is 31.8 square meters),” he says. “Prices in Khokana are still around 3m an aana.”
But Dangol’s claim doesn’t explain the sheer volume of land transactions taking place in Khokana.
According to the Land Revenue Office, Lalitpur, 20 to 25 land plots in Khokana are bought and sold every month. Just a few years before, there were barely five land transactions a month.
Locals say, in parts of Khokana, land value has quadrupled in a matter of years.
And then there are also claims of CPN-UML, the main opposition party in the federal parliament, playing a role in making Khudol of Khokana the start point or ‘Kilometer Zero’ for the fast track.
Although the project’s first draft had suggested Khudol as the fast track’s starting point, it was shifted 4km south to Farsidol of Bungamati following protests in May 2018. But the army again rezoned Khudol as Kilometer Zero without offering any explanation.
Rabindra Maharjan, ward chair of Lalitpur Metropolitan City-21, says 300 Khokana residents had submitted a petition to the then Defense Minister Ishwar Pokhrel against Farsidol’s designation as the fast track’s entry point.
“The majority of petitioners were from the UML faction of the then Nepal Communist Party (NCP),” he says. “You can guess why the Kilometer Zero mysteriously came back to Khudol.”
But Maharjan himself is accused of abandoning the cause of Khokana-Bungamati residents. Many people say he started distancing himself from the campaign soon after he was elected ward chair. Maharjan denies the allegation.
“I was the one to start the campaign,” he claims. “Many times, I have condemned the decision of my own party-led government in the Khokana case.”
While the cause of Khokana and Bungamati residents may have been consigned to the back burner, the buying and selling of the now premium properties continue.
Dangol, who seems to have fallen out of favor with Khokana residents, says allegations against him weaken the campaign. He says he is a businessman and his decision to invest in properties should not be misconstrued as a betrayal.
“I have bought and leased lands in various parts of Kathmandu Valley, mainly for farming purposes,” he says.
According to the army, compensations for 4,744 ropanis (a ropani is 508.74 square meters)—or 96.47 percent of the total land that needs to be acquired—have been handed out. But compensation for 427 ropanis of land is as yet unsettled due to the Khokana dispute.
In Khokana, per ropani price of land has been set at Rs 4.4m, Rs 3.6m and Rs 2.5m, varying with location. In Bungamati, land has been valued at Rs 4.1m, Rs 3.3m, and 2.4m respectively.
Elsewhere in the town of Nijgadh, the end point of the fast track, land prices have gone up as well.
During ApEx’s ground reporting, our team interviewed Sanjay Lama, a local hotel owner and real estate investor. He never thought property value in the area would shoot up.
“Real estate has boomed in Nijgadh,” he told us. “Land prices have gone up almost 10 times in the past five years.”
At the time of the interview, the price of a kattha (a kattha is 338.62 square meters) of land connected to the Mahendra Highway was about Rs 4m. Within a one-kilometer radius of the highway, the price was Rs 3m per kattha.
Before the expressway plan, land price hadn’t crossed Rs 300,000 a kattha, according to Lama.
Since Nijgadh will be the nearest Tarai town from Kathmandu after the construction of the fast track, many industrialists have bought lands there. Some have bought up to 50 bighas (one bigha is equal to 2528.81 square meters) of land to set up factories.
Most of these land buyers are from Kathmandu, Makwanpur, Jhapa, Chitwan, Morang, Sarlahi, Saptari, Mahottari, Dhanusha, Siraha and Surkhet districts.
Lama conceded that competition between local realtors had, to an extent, contributed to land-price hikes.
The fast track also passes through parts of Makwanpur district, but land rates there have not witnessed drastic changes.
In Makawanpurgadhi Rural Municipality, for instance, there has been no noticeable change in land transactions, both in terms of price and frequency.
Says Harka Maya Rumba, vice chairperson of the rural municipality, even though some people had plotted their land in the initial days of the fast track construction, they could not get buyers.
“People were not interested in investing here as there are unlikely to be arterial roads connecting the villages to the expressway,” she adds.