Sabin Maharjan, a young student and resident of Khokana, leaves the dirt road and walks into fields of dry paddy stalks. He is searching for an ancient well. Locals of Khokana call this area the Ku-Dey, a settlement area of early Newa civilization. Ku-Dey is said to precede the founding of Khokana, whose history itself is arcane. On the way is a chibha speculated to be from the Lichchhavi period. Sabin and others have mentioned that deep underground in the Ku-Dey, there are undiscovered remains of buildings and landmarks. By the edge of the field are the ruins of a falcha, which may have once been a Guthi house.

Ruins of a falcha at the edge of the field. Visible among the debris are flat rectangular bricks; the ‘ma appa’ typical of old Newa architecture.

The Sikali hillock is visible off into the distance; housing a temple and a funeral area, it is an important religious site for the people of Khokana. The people here are subsistence farmers. Sabin says that productivity has gone down over the years because the water from the irrigation channels from Nakkhu decreases each year. Khokana locals supplement their income with other jobs, but farming is still very important here.

Sabin points to a spot and says that farmers have told him this is where the well is supposed to be. “It’s buried completely now, but if we dig, we’ll find bricks there.” The area is overgrown with weeds and shrubs, and it is difficult to make out anything. But something else is visible among the paddy stalks.

It’s a marker stone for the Fast Track Project.

Marker stone for the Fast Track project.

Between a rock and a hard place

“My request to you” says Narendra Raj Dangol, at this impromptu meeting at his house, “is please don’t depict us as anti-development. We are not against development. We are just trying to make sure nothing bad happens to our community.”

Narendra has a lot to be concerned about. The government has drawn up blueprints for Khokana, and these include five major projects: the Fast Track (and the accompanying dry port), the Outer Ring Road, the Bagmati Corridor, a satellite city, and a high tension power line. Narendra heads the negotiation team and the Sarokar Samiti that has been interacting with government agencies regarding these projects. The Sarokar Samiti was formed nine years ago when Khokana locals realized these impending projects, drawn up without community consultation, forced their hand into unfair bargains; low compensation, disregard for their cultural heritage and traditions, and no vision for future livelihoods.

A woman weaves a sukul (straw mat) outside her house.

There is a lot at stake for locals. Khokana is a historic Newa village with a host of unique cultural identifiers. The Rudrayani temple in Khokana has an ambulatory space on its second floor (whereas people make their temple rounds on the bottom storey elsewhere). No chickens are kept in Khokana, only ducks. Khokana has one of Nepal’s oldest still-running cooperatives; their oil mill is historic. Khokana is also the place where Nepal’s first light bulb had been lit up. Many of Khokana’s homes are still in the traditional Newa style, with intricate doors and windows.

The building where the electric bulb was lit up for the first time in Nepal.

But things are about to change on an unprecedented level.

The Fast Track highway is now being managed by the Nepal Army. The 76.2km highway will run from Nijgadh to Khokana and is closely tied to the construction of the Nijgadh international airport. Touted as a National Pride project, it is not without issues: in 2011, an army staff was being investigated for misappropriation related to the Fast Track project. Though a panel reportedly gave him a clean chit, the army itself has a history of unexplained budget excesses in projects they have been involved in. In September 2017, Nepal Law Commission began drafting a special bill allowing the army to bypass the Public Procurement Act. There was also a prolonged stalemate regarding the purchase of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the Fast Track, originally prepared by an Indian consortium, and later on January 16, the Nepal Army announced that it would instead prepare a DPR itself. The army had already begun clearing trees for the project earlier in December.

For the Outer Ring Road, the government plans to build a 50m wide road along the outer edges of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, with 250m of land pooling on either side for town planning and urban construction.

The Satellite City is another ambitious project that involves building smaller metropolitan areas around Kathmandu’s urban center. Khokana is one of the locations that falls under the 10,000 ropanis of land designated for the project module around Lalitpur and Kathmandu. Both the Satellite City and ORR are being supported by JICA, Japanese government agency that oversees foreign development involvement.

The Bagmati Corridor will take at least 20m of land on either side of the Bagmati river for a walkway and green belt. The High Powered Committee for the Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization is looking after this project. Swetnath Parajuli, surveyor at the project, said that the cabinet notice issued on 16 November 2008 states that no new private constructions are to be made in the the areas that fall under the jurisdiction of the project, but the notice does not mention any policy of compensation; this would have to be handled in court.

The Hetauda-Kulekhani-Siuchatar high voltage power line is also slated to go through Khokana. With a voltage of 132KV, the line was to go across the farmland and the edge of Khokana. While the health risks of high voltage power lines remains a topic of controversy, residents of Khokana are concerned nonetheless, and see this as another form of encroachment on their territory. As a result, while the NEA has set up many of the towers, it has not put up wiring. In 2008, Locals had demolished a tower that was built very close to the settlement areas.

 

Image showing estimated paths of the development projects around Khokana.
Image showing estimated paths of the development projects around Khokana.

A prolonged desperation

Budhibahadur Sahi is rebuilding his home that was damaged by the earthquake. He’s already built the foundation, which is brick and concrete. He says he has received NRS 50,000 from the government so far, but just clearing the debris of his fallen home cost NRS 100,000. The government has pledged a total of NRS 300,000 per family. When asked when he will receive the remaining 250,000, he raises his hands in the air in exasperation. “Guble wai! Guble wai! (When will it come! When will it come!)”.

Clearing the debris of a fallen house.

The April 2015 earthquake took a toll on Khokana. A total of 812 of houses have been marked fully damaged (either completely destroyed or unsafe for living). There’s an earthquake victims’ camp at the western end of Khokana. Manbhakta Maharjan, a senior citizen and priest of the Sikali, has been living there since the earthquake. He tells The Record that there are 25 families living there.

The earthquake victims’ camp in Khokana.

Dasmaya Maharjan, another camp resident, is an older middle aged woman living by herself. Without funds to supplement the government’s 50,000, she is not able to begin building her house. “If I sell my land I’ll have nothing left, so I don’t know what to do.”

Sabin and Astendra say that because the government’s relief funds are so low, people are only able to build their homes by selling their farmlands.

Trickle-down development

Khokana’s ward office building has a traditional Newa facade. Inside, up the wooden stairs, one can meet ward chair Nabindra Dangol. When asked what the impact of the government’s development projects will be, he says, “Everything will be affected. Our community, our local economy, our very way of life. The projects even touch the Ku-Dey and Sikali. After these projects arrive here, how will we sustain ourselves? The state needs to think about this. As a civil servant I’m caught in the middle, I feel pressure from both the government and the people here.”

Nabindra goes on to talk about why the people are unhappy. “For the Satellite City project, they’ve already barred kitta kaat (plot division) here. Because of this, people are unsure whether to build their homes or not, fearing they may have to leave eventually. This is all the outcome of decisions being made purely from high posts, without discussing with locals.”

He states that the people of Khokana want these projects to approach them as one entity, rather than making them negotiate with each project separately. They also want the projects to constrain themselves to one consolidated area so that Khokana is not fragmented. “The compensation the government plans to provide here is also very low. In Timure, Rasuwa, the people were originally being given NRS 35,000 per ana for their land, but later the rate was increased to NRS 600,000”.

Why?

Andolan garey ni ta (the people rebelled).”

Treasures underground, apathy above

At the office of the Digo Samudayik Bikas Abhiyan in Khokana,  Astendra Maharjan tells me that in 2012, the local administration had granted the Fast Track project permission to conduct the survey for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. This is a mandatory report to be prepared prior to any large scale development program, and policies for this were first endorsed by the Nepali state in the late 80s. “But here, the government thinks that permission for an EIA is tantamount to permission for the whole project”.

He says the Fast Track project has not actually bothered to reach out to the people. “Rather, they were once invited to an interaction program here that was organized by the locals themselves. They were here as participants.”

Ashoj Maharjan, assistant professor at the Bouddha campus of Lumbini University, and resident and activist of Khokana, mentions that historic objects have been found in the Ku-Dey area. “Recently, the Department of Archaeology (DoA) unearthed an object speculated to be fragment of the head of a stone lion, and it’s possibly 1200 years old.” He himself has a find he is taking to the DoA. He brings out an object wrapped in a scarf, unravels it, and places it on the table. It’s a terracotta lamp.

Teracotta lamp found in the Ku-Dey area.

“Nepal’s laws guarantee that large projects like this are not to come so close to heritage and archaeological sites, and yet that is what is exactly what is happening here.” He goes on to speak about how apathetic the government is. “Earthquake victims haven’t been able to rebuild. People aren’t allowed to do land plotting, but they can sell it whole.” Astendra and Ashoj see this as a form of displacement. “People are being put in a trap.”

They relate the story of nearby Bhaisepati, where the government had drawn up a proposal for a state building, and redistributed local properties under a land pooling scheme. As per Nepali law, if the original proposal does not materialize within a set period, the land is to be returned. The project’s deadline expired in 2005. The tract of land remains empty, and the locals are still in a legal battle with the government.

Ashoj narrates another incident from the past. “When they were bringing the high tension power line from Kulekhani, we went to speak to the representatives there about the dangers this posed for people living nearby. The government official there said, well if we bring this power line through the forest, the animals will die, so it’s better to bring it along these flatlands. As if people’s lives didn’t matter!”

“The greatest tragedy”, says Ashoj, “is that all these people only saw the land of Khokana.”

North facing view of the fields of Khokana.

Nepal remains afflicted with a paradigm of development that involves big infrastructure and unrestrained urbanization. Gentrification is non-existent in public discourse. Questions of ecological destruction, preservation of heritage, consent of indigenous populations, community involvement, and quality of life are cast aside to make way for dreams of wide roads and tall buildings. The government makes unilateral decisions about development, and shrouds them in the rhetoric of national pride. The effects on Khokana will be immediate, but Nepalis might come to understand the true cost of these actions only many years down the line. The secrets of Ku-Dey may be lost before they are even discovered.