EDITORIAL: Lie of the land

Vast tracts of farmland are being lost to haphazard land plotting due to rapid urbanisation; it must be checked on time

The urban share in national population is rapidly increasing in Nepal in recent years. The country has seen an upward trend in rural-to-urban migration of late, and nearly two persons out of five live in municipalities today. The number of municipalities from 58 in 2011 has now increased to six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities and 276 municipalities. Urban population has risen to around 40 per cent. In 2011, around 17 per cent the total population lived in the municipalities. The population size in urban areas will continue to grow, as the promise of jobs, better education and better opportunities, among many other factors, will pull more people to cities. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Urbanisation while advances economic development, it also presents a unique set of challenges.

The urban growth that we are seeing today in the country is happening at the cost of fertile farmlands. Cities are using peripheral land for urban related purposes, and the practice is rife in the Kathmandu Valley as well as in the Tarai. “Land plotting” has emerged as booming business. Vast tracts of farmland — the majority of which are on the outskirts of cities — are being sliced into pieces to accommodate urban population.  In view of haphazard land plotting and unmanaged urbanisation, the government is planning to bring a new act on land use. A Cabinet meeting on November 11 passed the bill and forwarded it to Parliament for endorsement. The bill has a provision whereby local level permission is must for plotting land. This is a timely move. Once the new law for land use is in place, it is expected to address the problems arising from haphazard urbanisation and land plotting. The bill has categorised land into seven groups — agricultural, residential, commercial, industrial, forest, public and others — to ensure proper and scientific use of available land. An earlier directive issued by the government in August has prohibited plotting of arable land without getting prior permission from related government agencies.

Since this soon-to-be-promulgated act has clearly laid out the provision of getting permission from local levels, it is expected to control haphazard land use before it reaches the tipping point. Lack of clear policies so far has been the bane of cropland, rapid loss of which could prompt food insecurity. The country has lost over 105,000 hectares of arable land to urbanisation process since 2009, according to the Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation, which has prepared the new bill on land use. But what must not be forgotten is Nepal’s poor performance on majority of fronts is not because of lack of policies or laws; it’s largely because of lack of willpower on the part of politicians and bureaucrats and non-implementation of rules and regulations. Once the new act comes into effect, local bodies must introduce effective guidelines and strictly implement all the provisions. If we fail to introduce measures to ensure wise use of land today, we are sure to land in a bigger trouble tomorrow, as losing arable land to urban sprawl could prompt food insecurity. Only wise use of land and increased productivity can help us realise the constitutional guarantee of food security and sovereignty.

Build more toilets

The World Toilet Day was marked on Monday stressing the need to have access to safe sanitation, hygienic toilets that are connected to quality sewage system. Availability of enough public and private toilets is the basic requirement of human civilisation. Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for South-East Asia has warned that access to these services remained a problem. An estimated 900 million people in the region lack basic sanitation and more than 500 million are practising open defecation. Open defecation is the main cause of the diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and E.

Providing easy access to public toilets is one of the major challenges for Nepal where only 40 per cent population have toilets. We can control spread of diseases and improve sanitation and hygiene level if the local levels help build public toilets in their areas with the provision of running water. We can change people’s behaviour if we devise plans according to their beliefs. Nepal launched a campaign against open defecation in 2015 aiming at achieving universal access to toilet by 2017. We still need to go the extra mile to achieve this goal.