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Politicians and land mafia join hands to encroach Pokhara lakes

Despite court orders to conserve the natural water bodies in the lake city, the government remains indifferent, turning a blind eye as political elites and individuals persistently seize public land to erect concrete structures

Politicians and land mafia join hands to encroach Pokhara lakes

In October 2022, a new hotel was erected a mere 10 meters away from the shores of Lake Fewa. Despite violating the standard criteria of maintaining a 60-meter distance from the lake, the hotel was inaugurated by Bishnu Bhattarai, the local ward chairperson.

Ishwar Baral, the owner of the hotel, in an interview with the Centre of Investigative Journalism, expressed his admiration for the enchanting view of the lake from the hotel’s upper floors.

Two months after the inauguration of the hotel, Madhav Prasad Paudel decided to add another storey to his old house on the shores of the lake. But Pokhara Mayor Dhanraj Acharya ordered Paudel to halt the construction midway. 

Paudel waited for a month or so before resuming the construction work. The house, just 40 meters away from the shore of the Fewa, has now been turned into a hotel. Paudel claims as this house was built by my grandfather, the construction criteria around Fewa do not apply to his ancestral property.

During the local elections, Padam Lamichhane of Begnas in Pokhara-31 acquired approximately five ropani of unregistered (parti) land in Majhikuna, on the shore of Begnas Lake, to start his own hotel business. Once the foundation was laid, the metropolitan police demolished the structure, claiming it was illegal to build a structure within 65 meters of the shore, and that too on the unregistered land.

The construction materials were confiscated. But, like Paudel, Lamichhane resumed construction after two months and currently operates a hotel there. His hotel is just 10 meters from the shore of Lake Begnas.

Another resort has also opened on encroached land at Magikuna in Begnas. Built by Machchhe Gurung, a resident of Gilung in Kwoholasothar Rural Development Committee, Lamjung, this resort is just 15 meters from the lake. However, the criteria for Begnas is 100 meters. Gurung says he has built a hotel there as he owns the land.

Similar structures are being built on the shores of lakes in Pokhara. The construction criteria prepared six decades ago—leaving 65-meter distance from the shore of Fewa Lake and 100-meter from the shore of other lakes in Pokhara— still exist and apply to date. But they are rarely followed or strictly enforced.  

There is no specific data on how many structures have been built violating the criteria. To understand this, we discussed with the locals from Komagane, Fishtail Gate, Ambot, Gaurighat, Barahi, Hallan Chowk, Gairako Chautara, Khapaudi, Chankhapur and Pame, moving from east to west within the boundaries of Lake Fewa. Based on this assessment, at least 200 hotels are operating violating the criteria.

Around 100 hotels and coffee shops from Hallan Chowk to Taal Barahi Ghat and about 200 hotels from Gairako Chautara to Chankhapur have been built in the last five years. All of those structures have violated the criteria. According to the Pokhara Tourism Council, approximately 900 hotels operate in the Lakeside area, and half of them do not meet the criteria.

Kishor Dahal, a resident of Khapaudi in Pokhara-18, purchased a plot of land within the Fewa Lake area and built a house two years ago. This year, he has filled two ropanis of wetlands with earth and concrete on the lake’s shore in Sedi. He plans to build a petrol pump on this land.

Dahal claims there are no issues in filling the land registered in his name. Documents show that he purchased the land from Prem Prasad Pahari two years ago.

Similarly, three hotels have been constructed about 15 meters from the lake in Gairako Chautara within the last two years. Around 50 hotels have been built in the same manner over the past six years. 

About half of the 100 hotels in Majhikuna, on the eastern shore of the Begnas Lake, were built within the last five years. Most of them violate the construction criteria. On the northwest shore of Begnas Lake, around Pipley Danda, Saldanda, Syangkhudi, Libdi, and Begnas Lake Chowk, there are 13 new hotels that were opened fairly recently.

Sushila Pandey, a resident of Majhikuna, says the land around the lake is being developed at such a pace that it is hard to keep track.


Criteria different for different people

A two-storied coffee house that was being built at Pame Road, Khapaudi, on the shore of Fewa, is still incomplete. The metropolitan police halted the construction of the structure made of bamboo and wood.

The man who started the construction, Krishna BK, left for Dubai after his plan to open a business was halted by the city authorities. BK says it is unfair that the city decided to only bar his business plan.

“They have to stop everyone. Why should I be the only one? This isn’t fair” says BK.

Approximately 200 meters from BK’s now abandoned coffee shop stands Hotel Palm Beach. Occupying 10 ropanis of land, the hotel is just 10 meters from the lake and was built in the same year BK began constructing his coffee house.

When the hotel was under construction, a conflict had erupted between the owners and the locals over lake encroachment. The locals called the police and confiscated the keys of the bulldozer. The construction work was halted, only to resume after three months.

Some of the land occupied by this hotel is registered in the name of Toran Baniya, chairperson of Ward 15. Baniya says he has leased  the land.

Last year, Magh Raj Kandel was displaced after the metropolitan city demolished his fishpond, poultry farm, and a tea stall built on a ropani and a half of his land near Majhikuna in Begnas. Kandel passed away on 29 May 2023 due to a heart attack.

Kandel’s business was registered in his own name, and it was located approximately 25 meters from the lake. His neighbors say that Kandel had spent around Rs 500,000 to build the structures for his business. When CIJ met Kandel in April, he had said that apart from the land near the lakeshore, he didn’t have any other assets.

Two months after the authorities demolished Kandel’s structure, Machchhe Gurung, a local resident from Gilung, built a hotel on the other side of the shore. This time, the authorities had no issue with the construction. According to locals, Gurung is a relative of former Chief Minister of Gandaki Province and Vice-chairman of CPN-UML, Prithvi Subba Gurung. 

Next to Gurung’s hotel, another hotel has been running since last year. Pramod Wagle from Chitwan leased approximately 10 ropanis of land within the criteria to run the hotel. His hotel has also acquired an additional four ropanis of unregistered land.

In the same neighborhood, another entrepreneur Bikash Lamichhane has been running a restaurant since 2007 and has added two more floors this year. Even though it was built on his own land, the hotel is adjacent to the lake and does not meet the construction criteria. Lamichhane says he is not concerned about the authorities shutting down his business, as people who have built on unregistered land have not faced any consequences.

Santosh Bhujel, a resident of Pokhara-31, is worried about the haphazard construction going on around the shores of Pokhara lakes and the authorities’ lack of interest to stop it.

Bhujel runs a coffee shop approximately 300 meters from Begnas lake. Despite having his land near the lakeshore, he says he did not operate his business right next to the shore because of the construction criteria. His decision to follow the regulation is now hurting his business. 

He says the lake is no longer visible from his coffee shop, thanks to the newly constructed hotel buildings built on the lakefront. 

Shiva Prasad Pandey, a 63-year-old resident of Syangkhudi in Begnas, says he has not yet understood how the criteria works. He says he has seen the authorities demolish tea stalls and small hotels, but not those big resort hotel properties that touch the lake’s waters.


Arbitrary local governments 

As the government has restricted plotting and development on agricultural land, Pokhara Mayor Acharya has allowed the use of dozer in the wetlands, which do not fall under agricultural category as per the Land Use Regulation 2022. 

With the mayor’s decision, property transactions in and around the wetlands, as well as incidents of land encroachment, have increased.  

According to Leela Dhar Paudel, coordinator of the Water Conservation and Coordination Committee, Kaski, and chairman of the District Coordination Committee, bulldozer was operated on approximately 300 ropanis of land around the Fewa Lake since December last year.

National policies and international treaties related to wetlands and watersheds also prohibit excavation work within wetland and watershed areas. Such land should be protected. In this regard, the High Court of Pokhara heard the writ of Advocate Manoj Gharti Magar and ordered Pokhara Metropolitan not to fill the wetlands near Fewa Lake.

A week after the order of the Pokhara High Court, the Supreme Court ordered the local authorities of Pokhara to remove the encroached structures on other lakeside areas, including Fewa Lake.

Though Mayor Acharya has pledged to implement the Supreme Court’s order and demolish the structures around the lake, the city has not taken any concrete steps to free up the properties that were developed around the lakeshore in violation of the construction regulations.

Earlier, Acharya’s predecessor, Man Bahadur GC, had tried to reduce the construction criteria around Lake Fewa from 65 meters to 35 meters, only for the Supreme Court to intervene and stop further encroachment of the lake.

GC says the decision was taken because many lakefront properties are registered under individual names.

During the local elections of 2022, five parties—Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Center), CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajwadi Party, and Rastriya Janamorcha—formed an alliance. They stated that the lakes of Pokhara are the mainstay of tourism and are linked with the province’s economy as a whole and pledged to address all the related problems. They vowed to keep the size of the lake intact, remove encroachments, and distribute compensation fairly.

Similarly, the CPN-UML promised to provide proper compensation to those property owners whose buildings and businesses fall under the “no-construction” zone.

Currently, the executive committee of Pokhara Metropolitan City has an equal number of members from the CPN-UML and the five-party alliance. However, no significant work has been done for the conservation of the lakes.

Before the election, Mayor Acharya had also committed to implementing the Pokhara Watershed Area Project and conserving the lakes in a way that would benefit the locals. However, in the last one and a half years, he has not done any work other than covering the wetlands. 

Acharya says discussions are ongoing about the long-term development plans to conserve the land in a way that does not affect its beauty.

The lakes of Pokhara were listed in the World Wetlands list in 2016. However, the local government has not yet formulated any policies to increase special monitoring and conservation of the wetlands. 

After the introduction of the federal system, Pokhara locals had expected the local governments to resolve the issue of encroachment on the lakes. But that did not happen. 

Surya Prasad Paudel of Pokhara-31 says after the local government came to power, the encroachment has increased.

Individual own 4,000 ropanis of land in around Fewa Lake 

Due to the increasing encroachments of the lake areas, the Supreme Court on April 29, 2018, ordered the local government and the Land Revenue Office to investigate the land within the boundary of Fewa Lake and recommend compensation for the individuals and cancel illegal land registrations.

Accordingly, in October 2020, Pokhara Metropolitan City formed the Fewa Lake Boundary Determination and Demarcation Committee under the leadership of Punya Prasad Paudel, the former chairperson of the Kaski District Development Committee. The committee’s report, released in February 2021, states that 881 plots of land covering 4,000 ropani of area fall within the Fewa Lake area, but are registered as individual property as per the 1963 Land Survey.

According to the locals, after the collapse of the lake dam in 1974, many people registered the land near the lake.

The report of the Fewa Lake Encroachment Inspection Committee, formed under the leadership of Bishwo Prakash Lamichhane, the then chairperson of the Pokhara Sub-Metropolitan City Development Committee, mentions that 1,692 ropanis of land that once used to be the Fewa lakebed have been registered as individual properties. 


Landowners are taxed anyway

Lekhnath Dhakal of Sundaridanda in Begnas, Pokhara-31, has land on the shores of Begnas Lake and Rupa Lake, totalling 20 ropanis within the criteria (100 meters). In 1989, the government’s Irrigation Department had compensated the land likely to be affected by rising water levels while constructing a dam in Begnas Lake.

However, after the dam’s construction, Dhakal’s steep land also got submerged under water. His land was not initially listed among the areas to be possibly affected, and so he did not receive any compensation for the land. According to Dhakanath Kandel, chairman of Ward 31, approximately 200 ropanis of land, including Dhakal’s 20 ropanis, were not listed on the initial list, and so their landowners have not received any compensation to date.

Pokhara Mayor Acharya says that because the regulations regarding environment, wetlands, biodiversity, agriculture, and land use refer to the constitution, it is difficult to take any concrete decisions and work. 

According to Dhakal, the submerged 20 ropanis of land was his registered ancestral property. However, after the dam’s construction in Begnas Lake, which raised the water level, he could not farm or make any earnings from the land.

But, he says, he has been paying Rs10,000 annually to the local government as land tax. 

Ishwor Baral, a resident of Gairako Chautara in Lakeside, says he doesn’t know when the government will come and demolish the house where they have been living for generations. He adds the city has been collecting taxes even from those land plots and buildings that violate the construction criteria.

Saraswati Lamichhane of Begnas has been unable to sell her three ropanis of ancestral land because of the criteria. Surya Paudel, a local, has also given up on the land registered in his name near Begnas Lake. 

In 1963, the government measured the area of Fewa Lake for the first time with the help of the Survey of India. The total area of Fewa Lake was 10.35 square kilometers at that time. However, the survey conducted by the Pokhara Metropolitan City in 2020 showed that the size of Fewa Lake had reduced to half, around 5.77 square kilometers. One study concludes that land encroachment is the main reason for the decrease in the lake area.

The Supreme Court has often issued orders to stop encroachments based on the survey reports of Pokhara lakes. The apex court has issued orders to protect the lakes of Pokhara, investigate and control encroachments, provide compensations, and demolish illegal structures that violated the criteria as recently as in 2007, 2012, 2018, 2022, and 2023.

Conflict in the constitutional provision

To some extent, the current constitution is also responsible for the lack of conservation of the lakes in Pokhara. Appendix 5 of the constitution places national and international environment and wetlands management under the federal government’s rights.

Similarly, Appendix 6 mentions that environmental management within the provinces falls under the authority of the provincial government, while Appendix 7 says that the federal and provincial governments jointly govern works related to biodiversity and environmental conservation. Point 10 of Appendix 8 mentions that environmental conservation and biodiversity conservation rights are granted to the local government.

Immediately after the local elections in 2017, former Chief Minister Gurung established the Lake Conservation and Development Authority to help the local government conserve lakes. Although the authority initiated discussions at the local level to identify and manage natural resources around the lakes, its Chief Executive Officer Kalpana Devkota admits they couldn’t carry out further work.

Devokta says many issues related to the lakes and the environment fall under the common rights of the federal, provincial and local governments, and this poses a challenge in proper coordination.

CIJ Nepal