Life on Bagmati’s banks


Whenever one walks on the bridges over the Bagmati or the Bishnumati rivers or along the shores, one automatically reaches to cover one’s nose cause the stench is unbearable. And one wonders how people living on the banks survive the stench. Yet the banks are home to hundreds of lives.

Slums have mushroomed on these very banks where we cannot walk a yard without complaining about the foul smell. Hundreds of flimsy and dingy huts line the banks. On any day you will see women busy preparing lunch for the whole family, small children playing in the sun, men doing their work, teenagers carrying water.

And along Bagmati’s banks these people live a life way out of our imagination — a life of survival.

Life less ordinary

Kala Shrestha and Sarada Bhandari are busy digging mud from a heap left by the pick-up truck near the Balkhu area slum.

Kala, 21, has a toddler who sits beside her eating instant noodle from a dirty plastic mug waiting for her mother to finish carrying the mud to their ‘house’ to smoothen the floor.

“My husband is a labourer who works at building sites. He has ulcer and is not feeling well, but with only around Rs 3,500 salary per month where else can we stay?” asks Kala, who had been staying at Dhobighat and only recently came to the slum to set up a hut of their own.

Sarada too has a family of five and with her husband also earning a similar amount as Kala’s husband, she cannot think of staying in a rented room and educate their two sons and a daughter. “It’s not easy to stay here. The winds sometimes blow the roof away, water leaks from everywhere. But we will survive. And at least we don’t have to worry about the rent,” she says.

More than 100 families with similar financial problems live in the area, but living here is more of a relief than a problem. It’s not an easy life though people from the municipality come time and again to make them leave the area.

“They threaten us and sometimes the bull dozer destroys all the houses,” says Kala.

But the next day they rebuild their shanties and life gets back to normal.

“We will die, but we will not leave this place. If the government want us to leave, then they will have to provide us a better place to live,” says Sarada whose house in her village was destroyed by the Maoists.

And today she does not want to return home. “We have learnt to live here so they have to provide us a better place to stay or else let us stay here. This is no one’s property and we are fine here,” she insists.

Earning for living

Across the river is yet another community where over 300 people living as one big family. Hailing from the Tarai region and some from the border cities of India, they share the kitchen and have been living together for more than 10 years here. They work together picking rags, plastics, glasses and many more. They eat together in the kitchen set up anywhere on the ground and sleep in the open space after fixing a huge tent. They bundle up their mattresses in the morning.

Ten-fifteen semi naked children run around playing their own imaginative games with broken toys picked from waste. When it rains at night, they pick up their mattresses and run to take shelter under the bridge.

“Life has not been very bad to us. We earn enough to feed and clothe ourselves, so it’s going fine. We save rent and fuel but if only we had a better place to sleep, it wouldn’t be so difficult,” says Rajesh Nauniyar.

They are sure the Maoists will provide them a better place to live in as they were promised.

When asked if they are planning to educate the children they have the same opinion, “What’s the use of educating them? They bring in plastics and other wastes from places nearby and earn for the family.”

May be that is the reason that each couple has more than one child. It is not that they are not aware of family planning, but they don’t mind having an extra hand to help them in the work.

Recycling waste

The rags they collect are used to make mattresses, sofa sets and cushions; the plastic bottles are crushed and sent to India to make the fibres that are used in the jackets to make it warm and bulky, plastic bags are recycled into black plastic bags, while the companies themselves resuse the beer bottles.

“We sell everything to the kabadi but the earning is not good. We walk all day long and collect everything, but at the end of the day, the earning is just enough for our daily needs. Nothing is left for saving,” says Nauniyar.

Hygiene comes last

While they are working hard to survive in the slums, hygiene is the last of their concerns. Makeshift toilets are situated closer to the river, and for the children it’s anywhere and everywhere. Though they get 10 litres of water every three days for drinking and cooking, it not enough for big families. Cleaning and washing is done with water from the river that carries wastes.

Life on Bagmati’s banks is not easy, but the people who have made it their home are hopeful and live with the dream that the government will some day change everything. Till then they are okay with their jhorpies.

And they say they will survive.