TOPICS: Informal settlers of Kathmandu

Slums are the manifestation of abject poverty of the rural poor who have to come to cities like Kathmandu for jobs. But the unplanned, poor and sick city cannot accommodate their dreams. They end up settling down in open and public places. Most Nepalis are well aware of this fact, but they have their own stories to tell. Some complain, not against the government’s carelessness, but ‘encroachment’ by squatters (sukumbasis).

They often forget that these informal settlers (a recently published report suggests 78% of slum dwellers have citizenship and only 1% cent of Madheshi and Muslim population reside in the slums) are common Nepalis who have become riverside settlers not from choice but owing to vicious circle of poverty, and the decade-long conflict. Instead, the issue of legality is brought up. The fact that a settlement can be illegal, not the settlers, is conveniently overlooked.

According to a report by Lumanti (an organisation advocating housing rights for the poor), Kathmandu has 47 such settlements where 13,243 settlers from 2,844 families reside. Of them, 64% are from indigenous communities, 7% are Dalits, 1% Madhesis and Muslims and 28% are from other communities. The report further states that a good number of slum dwellers are uneducated; 53% are daily wage earners.

This should answer the suspicion many have regarding infiltration of the settlements by land mafia. The report does not suggest that these settlers have been used by the mafia, although the possibility of infiltration in some cases cannot be ruled out. Even then, the question arises:

How logical is it to ignore the concerns of these settlers in the name of infiltration?

Furthermore, many associate squatters with theft and other urban problems. They accuse the settlers of polluting the already dirty rivers of Kathmandu. But areas like Shankhamool that has been home to informal settlers for nearly three decades still maintain a clean and green environment. Settlers there claim to have saved the river from the hands of the mafia.

Likewise, some of the media coverage on slum dwellers show them in a decisively bad light. Their wish for clean, green and planned Kathmandu is appreciable. However, the matter here is the poor people’s right to city, to housing and other basic needs. Slum dwellers often fear eviction and displacement, like the one that took place in Thapathali some years ago on the eve of SAARC summit in Kathmandu.

Thus the government has to take necessary steps to make Kathmandu clean and green, while not undermining the rights of the informal settlers who have been living in the same places, their only ‘homes’, for decades. If necessary, resettlement and rehabilitation processes should be stringently followed, but with the consensus of the settlers. To end on a positive note, somebody rightly said: Slum is not a chaotic collection of structures; it is a dynamic collection of individuals who have figured out how to survive in the most adverse circumstances and in the face of tremendous obstacles.