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Top-Down Development: A Climate of Uncertainty Fuels Forced Displacement in Nepal’s Push for Road Expansions

A lack of knowledge certainly does not serve the people, whose interests apparently conflict with those of the developers.

Besisahar's main bazaar. (Photo: Bennett Heine).

Driving from the town of Dumre in the Tanahun District of rural Nepal, a humble asphalt highway advances northward, bisecting town after town as it leads into the Himalayan foothills and eventually to the mountainside village of Chame. This small highway hosts motorcycle and mule alike, attracting the productive surplus of the surrounding areas to its roadside bazaars, chief among them Besisahar. A quiet city of 15,000 at night, Besisahar swells to a daytime population of more than 20,000 as residents of the surrounding hills migrate to the storefronts of the main bazaar road, only to retreat at the hint of nightfall. But a walk along Besisahar’s main road, home to over 400 dry goods stores, cyber cafes, guest houses and produce stands, currently serves as a tour of a city condemned by development.

The road connecting Dumre to Chame was completed in 2012 to the delight of residents now connected to Nepal’s growing highway system. But in mid-June, word spread from the local bureaucracy that Nepal’s central government had issued plans to widen this stretch of road from 14 to 30 meters, necessitating the demolition of more than 400 businesses and 1,200 homes. After surveying the decreed 30-meter corridor, all land measured within it will be transferred to the ownership of the Road Division Office, freeing it to be bulldozed and blacktopped.

Crowded against the decades-old, 7-meter standard for roadside construction, the average bazaar building has a curbside store and up to three floors of apartments and/or offices above it. Few buildings can accommodate the expansion with more than their back walls standing, a fact that weighs heavily on many families’ minds when they eye the invisible 15-meter line that cuts through bedrooms, kitchens, store counters and stairways. These are the same shops that for the most part still stand in the shadows of the outstanding loans used to buy them, loans that would, after the expansion, have to be paid on nonexistent buildings with the profits of nonexistent businesses. And individual economic losses would be mirrored on a larger scale by the draining of municipal and district budgets to repair vital infrastructures damaged by the proposed expansion; for example, one water department employee estimates that damages to the roadside pipe system caused by the expansion would exceed 10 million rupees. Yet most residents of Besisahar continue to voice their support of development in Nepal, only finding quarrel with the heavy-handed methods being employed to facilitate it. This is because, rather than monetary compensation, homelessness, unemployment, debt and uncertainty seem to be all that the Nepali government is offering the people of Besisahar.

However, Besisahar’s residents have acted swiftly to challenge the government’s plans. A Struggle Committee was formed within days of the news under the leadership of a local Chamber of Commerce official. Within a week, the committee sent a delegation to Kathmandu to plead its case before the Supreme Court. That effort resulted in a temporary halt to the road’s expansion until the courts can review the case. But few are hopeful about what may come from the Supreme Court’s involvement; similar road projects in Nepal have displaced thousands in Kathmandu and other areas, more often than not with no compensation or resettlement plan.

But the Nepali government is not the only obstacle that stands in the way of Besisahar’s fight against its forced displacement. Besisahar also faces national indifference, partially because of a lack of clear and complete information. News coverage of the situation has been sparse; virtually nonexistent on a national level and only marginally more visible on a district level.

Talking with residents in the upper bazaar, where the asphalt currently surrenders to dirt and rock, the expansion is explained as an improvement to transportation infrastructure called for by China and India as they look to develop large hydropower plants in the Manang District. In the lower bazaar, World Bank highway regulations and the plans of Asian Development Bank surveyors lie at the heart of the push for expansion.

In the local newspaper, one journalist described a decades-old document that Besisahar residents signed to allow for future road expansion, a report that our sources label a fabrication. It seems that not a person in Besisahar knows which WB and ADB decisions to contest; the transportation demands of hydropower companies are as well-documented in Besisahar as the number of stray dogs along its curbs; and when questioned, that journalist cannot produce the document he cited to legitimize government seizure of land for which seemingly legal, municipal permits had been previously issued.

The people of Besisahar and the Struggle Committee that is alone in defending their best interests lack the most basic access to the information necessary to know whom they’re struggling against and why. The committee has done well in its efforts, acting swiftly to secure an interim order to temporarily halt the process and bring its arguments before the Supreme Court. Yet the climate of ambiguity that has been fostered by the Nepali government’s choice of inaction in communicating with Besisahar’s residents has hindered the committee’s efforts significantly. And this primary weakness in the anti-expansion movement serves as its opponents’ chief weapon: the ever-rising tide of uncertainty in the face of certain displacement.

The Nepali government neglected to provide bazaar residents with any information on the expansion, choosing only to inform the Lamjung District Development Committee of the plans. The news of displacement was then disseminated throughout the city beneath a letterhead of rumor and hearsay. In a similar situation in Kavrepalanchok District, residents only learned of the plans to demolish their houses by the markings the government painted onto the condemned homes. But the legality of Besisahar’s expansion is muddled by a history of contradictory ordinances and permits. Amid the exchange of rupees and goods along the road, one can find photocopies of dated temporary building permits allowing construction 7 meters from the road’s center line. But by the time correct change has been counted out, one can see a different, permanent building permit allowing the government to reclaim the 8 meter difference at any time. Other residents are simply renting their buildings and have as little indication of what rights they have as they do inclination to take up the cause to preserve the land upon which their rented shops stand. One often cited yet never seen ordinance from 40 years ago is said to have overridden all permits and declared a 10-meter-from-center standard. The city limits of Besisahar have thus come to define an area of uncertainty in which residents are forced to debate assumptions made where information is lacking and decide courses of action accordingly.

Similar road expansions have occurred in nearby districts and some Besisahar residents fear a continued pattern of uncompensated displacement. Fueled by such fears, worry for the future has condensed into a thick coat of anxiety in the present. “What will we do?” is a question on the lips of many residents, as is, “Where will we live?” The most obvious impact of the expansion would be an economic one, robbing hundreds of their main or only sources of income and personal wealth. The expansion thereby targets the most economically vulnerable in the bazaar, the poor and oppressed, with the lower castes being disproportionately represented in this demographic. One Dalit shop owner went so far as to claim that only the responsibility of staying with his family eliminated suicide as an option for him. In this way, uncertainty bookends the road expansion’s effects on the most vulnerable; on one side is a maze of explanations for the expansion and on the other, a fog obscuring the way to deal with it.

When the Struggle Committee’s Kathmandu delegation reached the Supreme Court, it presented a complaint against the Nepali government with the knowledge that it might better be directed at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, or maybe Chinese or Indian hydropower development interests. But the fact is that no effort has been made by any government, agency, or institution to explain to individual residents why they will be removed from their land without compensation or how to rebuild their lives afterward. If, in fact, World Bank funds are involved in the road project, this lack of community engagement directly contradicts its regulations that demand “efforts to improve their [displaced persons] livelihoods and standards of living or at least restore them” after forced displacement in any “Bank-assisted project” or project “significantly related to [a] Bank-assisted project” (World Bank Operational Manual 4.12) And without knowing who has lusted for the land beneath their feet and why, the multitude of alternatives to this process can’t be accurately weighed against each other: a route around Besisahar, displacement with compensation, forfeiting 10 meters instead of 15, two one-way highways (one being the current road through Besisahar), or a full halt to any expansion. The lack of transparency in the Besisahar road expansion project has thereby impeded community efforts to voice their concerns about the expansion.

One can only speculate as to why there is not readily available and clear information about the planned road project. The lack of knowledge certainly does not serve the people, whose interests apparently conflict with those of the developers. But the people are not against development; they just do not want to be its victims. Legally and morally, it would appear to be incumbent upon the promoters and beneficiaries of the road expansion – the government, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the private and foreign interests – to communicate with the people of Besisahar and others who stand to lose lifelong investments. By introducing a clarity to the process that has so far been absent, developers and the people of Besisahar can create a model of development whose process is as admirable as its product.