“Is this loktantra? Is it loktantra to build roads by plowing over people using the army?” shouted Ashoj Maharjan, resident of Khokana, a professor of Buddhism at Lumbini University’s college in Bouddha, and a leading voice for Khokana’s surging activism. “We’ve already submitted an application to the Human Rights Commision. What’s happening here is wrong because Khokana’s disagreement has already been registered at the Home Ministry.” According to Maharjan, the government’s callous disregard is compelling the villagers to oppose the Fast Track.
This was on March 4, 2018, when Ashoj and other protesters gathered in front of the newly set up army camp in Khokana. The Nepali Army was there to provide security to contractors who were building a dirt road with two bulldozers. The protesters held placards that said: “Protect the ancient heritage of Pinga, Sikali, Ku-dey (locations near Khokana)!”, “We reject the decisions made without local consultation.” The protesters were all men, but hovering around them with some uncertainty was a woman.
Appearing distressed and keeping a toddler close by, she was hesitant at first to speak. “Nothing bad will come of this, right?” She asked.
The woman’s name was Jamuna Maharjan, and her plot of land fell in the route of the Fast Track. “My husband is infirm, and there is no one at home to look after these matters, so I came here to understand what’s going on.”
Khokana has become the intersection point of the Fast Track and four other ambitious construction projects. Locals are tense about the prospect of the loss of land, heritage, and their impending economic displacement.
A short history of the Fast Track
In 1996, the government of Nepal asked for expression of interest for a Fast Track highway connecting Kathmandu and the Terai. The project languished for a decade and half. In 2013, the government decided to fund the Fast Track project through state investment. The original plan had been to allow construction under a build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) model, where the developer recovers their expenses through operating the completed project. However, the high-investment, long-term nature of the Fast Track had deterred investors.
Indian consortium Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) won the bid for the project, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the government in February of 2015. But the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and protests against the constitution, created delays. Madhesi protests blockaded border points, and this escalated into India’s undeclared blockade. On top of that, infrastructure and development experts in Nepal began criticizing the deal as a financial risk. In October 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the deal to halt, citing concerns over national interest. A year later, in November of 2016, Nepal decided to build the Fast Track by itself, and the Planning Commission prepared a report in February 2017 suggesting that it was possible. Three months later, the project was handed over to the Army. On May 28, 2017, PM Prachanda laid the foundation stone for the Fast Track in Nijgadh.
IL&FS had already prepared the Detailed Project Report for the Fast Track, but the Army offered less than a third of IL&FS’s asked price of NPR 608 million (USD 5.8 million), leading to a fall-out where IL&FS’s DPR was ultimately rejected. A new DPR is to be made by the Army based on the Asian Development Bank’s feasibility study. However, the Army has begun Fast Track work before the completion of the DPR, and the project has been moving forward at an accelerated pace.
The 76.2 kilometer, four lane highway is to stretch from Khokana to Nijgadh, and 99 bridges and a 1.35 kilometer tunnel are also included in the project. The proposed Nijgadh international airport depends on the Fast Track. The project is estimated to cost NPR 100 billion (USD 963 million).
A road that jumps over the rules
According to the Nepali Army spokesperson Gokul Bhandari, work that does not require DPR guidelines, such as clearing forests and setting up camps, is already underway. “We have even begun some construction work in Bara.” Bhandari said they had faced no problems in dealing with the locals. “We’ve had no problems in Makwanpur, we’ve had no problems in Bara. There are some issues in Khokana, but it’s about compensation, and is being discussed.”
The Army, however, has long been above the anti-corruption laws of the country. A new law is also being drafted that makes it possible for the Army to circumvent the Public Procurement Act for this project. Regarding the matter, Bhandari said “this is called the Sunset Act, and it’s being prepared because we have a lot of things to accomplish in a very short time, and this will speed up the process. It hasn’t passed yet, but we are pushing for it. We have only four years, and we’re already overdue on tasks.”
According to Tulsi Sitaula, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works and former Director General of the Department of Roads, this sets a bad precedent. “My understanding is that they do not want to have transparency in the process,” Sitaula said, “They want to do whatever they want. This Act hasn’t passed yet, which is a good thing, but it might go through in the future. It must not happen.”
Indra Adhikari, Deputy Executive Director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and author of Military and Democracy in Nepal, spoke of the problems that expanding the Army’s role in public life brings. “Any public institution, including the Army, should do that which is actually part of their role. The Army owns schools, cinema halls, radio stations, and is involved in construction work, when in fact we already have a separate ministry for construction. Is this what we are investing public money into the Army for? And on top of that, the Army is doing these projects on a profit basis. This is becoming more like a corporate army. In countries like the US or India, where the army is involved in infrastructure projects, the projects are either beyond the abilities of civilian institutions or they are sensitive from a security viewpoint. Even then, the armies there are involved with technical aspects of the project only, not financial. Those are also armies that have reached a certain standard of global power. Our army is not at that level, so the question arises, by misapplying the Army on this and that project, what are we achieving? The Army is for defense; either we should apply the Army towards developing security skills, or, we should lower our expectations of their defense capabilities.”
Rtd. General Bala Nanda Sharma, had similar views. “The army is for war, not building roads. This is the biggest project the Nepali Army has taken on yet. They are not equipped to construct the highway by themselves so obviously the work needs to be outsourced. But if it is going to be outsourced anyway, why not give it to the road department?” According to Rtd. General Sharma, in projects that cannot be handled by civilians, it is legitimate for the Army to take up the responsibility. “But why did the state choose this before other options? Why did the executive head of the country think this decision was appropriate?”
Tunnel vision on infrastructure
Unilateral infrastructure construction remains the trend in Nepal. Whether hydropower in the Upper Trishuli, or power lines in Sindhuli, locals are often left out of decision-making, resulting in unfair compensation, clashes, and displacement. Such forms of narrowly defined projects, often funded by large foreign donors such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), or the World Bank, present themselves as cure-alls for development ills, and tend to overlook the longer term impact on the environment, local heritage, and indigenous populations.
The ADB had prepared a Technical Assistance Report in 2006 which makes no mention of cultural heritage. It does mention a few guidelines for participatory development, including consultations with stakeholders and involvement of local communities. The Technical Assistance report also identifies the need to have a resettlement plan and assess impact on ethnic minorities and indigenous people, however, it is unclear is how the risks to these have been marked as “Not significant”. The Record had reached out to the ADB for the feasibility report they prepared for the Fast Track, but this was not made available by the time of publishing.
The Environment Impact Assessment for the Fast Track project discusses ecology at length, but has only one mention of heritage: “Different cultural sites that may be affected during the implementation of the project were documented during the process.” This too, only as part of a case study of Chhaimale Village Development Committee. Nothing further is discussed regarding how to protect those sites. While the study mentions the estimated annual savings from lowered fuel and transport costs, it does not make a projection about the economic costs of lost farmland and impact on biodiversity.
When asked about specific programs the Army has conducted for local engagement, spokesperson Bhandari mentioned future plans to run social service activities along the route. Locals in Khokana, however, have mentioned that the Fast Track authorities have not done anything in terms of public outreach.
Trapped between roads
A picnic was taking place in the Sikali, as Jamuna Maharjan sat just beyond the fenced parking area, selling packets of potato chips, cigarettes and other tid-bits.
This time, Jamuna was more keen to share her story. “We need to let people see how we are getting by.”
Jamuna’s home is in the Chihraun Khokana (a smaller settlement near the core Khokana settlement area), and she sets up shop by the Sikali once a week or once every two weeks. Her elder son Devendra, who has studied till grade 9, looks after the parking area, and he gives her a heads up on when there are more visitors, so she can come and sell snacks. Devendra’s wife has a small job at a hospital, and they have a young daughter. Jamuna’s younger son is a house painter. Jamuna’s husband used to be in construction, but has been suffering from a stomach ailment for almost 16 years, and is unable to work.
They explained that though their house was damaged by the quake, they received no compensation. According to Jamuna, those who didn’t need the compensation got it, but poor people like themselves got nothing. “It’s as if there was only an earthquake for the Sahus, but for the poor there is no earthquake, that’s what I say.”
“That’s our land there,” she says, as she points to patch of tan closer to the river. “It’s 10 anas. We’ve sown wheat on it.”
According to Devendra, the government is offering NPR 100,000 (USD 963) per ana in compensation, when the market rate is around NPR 500,000-600,000 (around USD 5000). With the coming of the road, land prices will see a sharp rise. The land closer to the settlement areas already go for NPR 2,000,000 (USD 19,260) per ana. Devendra says that they came to know that their plot also fell under the Fast Track land only after he approached and asked some surveyors visiting the area. “This was some months back. After hearing this news, our mother became so unwell that we were worried she was going to die.”
Devendra states that the government took their lal purja (land ownership documents). “Well, they take it before they give you compensation. They’ve been telling us to come and get our share, but we haven’t gone yet. We are hoping they raise the compensation amount. The local leaders here have also told us not to take the compensation. But we are not sure who to listen to.” Jamuna, meanwhile, is afraid that they won’t get their lal purja back. On top of that, the land is not theirs alone; they bought it in partnership with their relatives. Devendra has also heard speculation that their house might fall on the route of the Outer Ring Road.
Jamuna fears the road projects will bring in newcomers and displace the old inhabitants. “When this road is done, the ones inside will be outside, and the ones outside will be inside.”
The concerns that locals have about the project go beyond the question of compensation. Already suffering wide damages from the earthquake, and now becoming even more economically vulnerable, Khokana residents are caught between projects that threaten to uproot their way of life and their cultural identity. They are worried they will lose their land, their home, and their village.
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