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Acrid smoke from burning tires spread through the broad avenues of Dhangadhi on September 26, 2018. All around, enraged masses were continuously shouting slogans against the government.

A day earlier, the provincial assembly passed a proposal to establish its new capital at Godawari municipality, currently surrounded by the dense Teghari forest. The opposition party, as well as a majority of the locals and environmentalists voiced their disapproval, insisting Dhangadhi was a better site.

According to Article 288(2) of the Constitution of Nepal, a two-thirds majority of the provincial assembly has the authority to name and designate a site to house the provincial capital. Based on this, the 32nd meeting of the provincial assembly, held on 30 July 2018, formed a special recommendation committee, comprising members specifically tasked with identifying and suggesting a suitable name for the province and a location to establish its permanent capital.

Tara Lama Tamang, provincial lawmaker and coordinator of the committee, tabled the report at the next meeting, proposing “Sudurpaschim” as name. It also recommended two sites for the new capital: a neighbourhood of Dhangadhi or Godawari. The latter option gained two-thirds majority, with 38 of 52 province MPs voting in its favour.

Naming and designating province capitals is an important step in Nepal’s journey towards establishing a permanent federal structure. For many Nepalis, federalism suggests development promises and a more accountable and closer model of governance that can help improve people’s living standards.

A major prerequisite for accelerating development has to do with expanding connectivity networks, such as roads, electricity, and other infrastructure. Those proposing the capital be housed inside Teghari Forest point to its potential for functioning as such a development hub.

Teghari Community Forest during monsoon. The site is proposed location for Provincial capital, Sudurpaschim Pradesh. Click picture for enlargement.

Teghari is located about 168 km from Dadeldhura and 20 km from the city of Dhangadhi. Bhimdatta Highway, which dissects the forest, is perceived by the locals as “the only road to the hills”, as it connects the province’s southern districts to the province’s seven hill and mountain districts.

But a majority of locals and environmentalists vehemently oppose the idea because Teghari is also a significant forest patch that connects to massive trails of dense forests.  

The proponents for creating the capital in Teghari, however, will not budge. They argue the proposal does not endorse the felling of trees needlessly. And the local government seems to be conceiving contingency plans to address concerns raised by environmentalists.

The province government plans to wire-fence the capital’s premises after the capital’s infrastructure is built, and says that they will mitigate environmental risks by following measures recommended by an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). 

The proposed capital would spread across 340 hectares—about 26 times the area of Kathmandu’s Tundikhel. Stressing that the site is dotted by only a handful of sal and sisau trees, the local government appears determined to clear out the forest to implement its ambitious plan.  

Despite ongoing protests, Committee Coordinator Tamang remains steadfast in his conviction about the committee’s plan and the vision. Further, he believes the proposal’s being passed by a two-thirds majority makes for a strong mandate.

“This is a major plan and is crucially significant to many stakeholders as well as locals, so I do not see objections hampering a project that is aimed at the greater good of the people of Sudurpaschim,” says Tamang. “Rather, I am a hundred per cent sure the proposal will soon be implemented.”   

This plan was initially spearheaded by House Speaker for Sudurpashchim Province Arjun Bahadur Thapa. The concept note prepared by Thapa introduces the capital in Teghari as a pilot project that aims to bolster the locals’ physical, administrative, and economic stature.

The local government has allocated a hefty budget of Rs 39.2 billion for the project. They plan to complete the project within eight years–starting off constructing the province parliament within two years, ministry buildings within four, and remaining office buildings within six. The rest will be completed within eight years.

Demographics appear to favour a capital in Sudurpaschim’s Terai plains. Almost half of the province’s population lives in Kailali, where Teghari lies, and Kanchanpur districts.  

Teghari forest lies in predominantly government-owned land, so local officials believe the process to establish the capital there would be smoother than elsewhere. 

“This is the first time we have had the opportunity and authority to craft our own place,” says Thapa. 

Thapa reiterates Teghari is suitable in every respect to be the provincial capital, especially because it can make the government more accessible and connected to the people. In response to the counter arguments environmentalists have raised, he ensures the government will adopt mitigation plans to lessen anticipated environmental hazards.

Shiva Mandir, Godawari in the close proximity to the proposed location for the Provincial Capital, Sudurpaschim Pradesh. Click picture for enlargement.

According to Thapa, there are already dense forest stretches in other areas of the Terai. Therefore, he sees the project as an opportunity to spur development at minimum cost to the area’s ecology.

“I think trading off short-term comforts in order to achieve long-term benefits is worthwhile if the outcome justifies the means,” says Thapa. 

“I think trading off short-term comforts in order to achieve long-term benefits is worthwhile if the outcome justifies the means,” says Thapa. 

But the government’s decision has resulted in successive bouts of rage and public outcry, especially among people in Godawari Municipality and Dhangadhi Sub-metropolitan City.

Environmentalists and conservationists demand the decision be scrapped. They see it as a step towards wiping out Teghari, its age-old culture, and livelihoods that depend on the forests.

Asserting that the decision breached Articles 16(1), 17(1), 30 and 46 of the Constitution of Nepal, Advocate Devi Kumari Joshi, a resident of Dhangadhi, filed a case in the Supreme Court, pleading scrutiny on the grounds on which the decision was taken. Joshi believes the decision violated the community’s right to live in a clean, healthy environment and says that the project work could pose serious environmental hazards in the near future. The hearing is to be held in mid-March 2020.

Thapa says they have not received any stay order from the Supreme Court, and that the case cannot prevent them from proceeding with the project.

“The work shall start in full force once the plan-execution team is prepared. The first step is an EIA,” says Thapa.

The case is not as cut-and-dried as the local government makes it out to be. Since they opted to set up the capital in a rather desolate area, infrastructure and development work in the area will have to be started from scratch. Construction is therefore anticipated to incur massive financial and administrative costs for the provincial government. Apart from the administrative and political tangles, developing the area as a capital is certain to affect households that are dependent on the community-managed forests.  

According to the Community Forest Investigation and Evaluation Report 2017/18, as many as 531 forests, which total 58,020 hectares, were earlier declared as community forests in Kailali District.

In Godawari Municipality, more than 10,000 hectares have been handed over as community forests to locals. The new capital is to be built on 161 hectares of Teghari Community Forest, 169 hectares of Baskota Community Forest, and parcels of the remaining public forests.

However, with such project areas likely to be expanded in the name of development, there is a danger of continuous deforestation.

 

 

 

 

 

A deforested area in Godawari Municipaliy. Deforestation has a wide reaching
impact. Local forests are important water reservoirs and when they are destroyed, risk of water stress is further deepened. Click picture for enlargement.

Locals harbour a variety of opinions on the issue. While some are deeply irked by the idea of development at the cost of “cultural assassination and ecological impairment”, some are counting down the days to when the construction will start, which they hope will unleash a developmental boom in the area and drastically increase land prices.   

Opponents of the project, however, don’t buy this idea. 

Dandi Raj Subedi, chairperson of FECOFUN (The Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal), a community forest user group, says 482 households in Teghari and 356 in Baskota Community Forest, who are registered with FECOFUN, currently benefit from the forest’s services.

Subedi says many villagers depend on the forest for their daily livelihoods, and they anticipate that the project could impair the communities’ symbiotic relationship with the forest.

This argument is sound. In a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability in May 2019, researchers found that giving Nepali communities the chance to look after their own forests led to a 37 per cent drop in deforestation and a 4.3 per cent decline in poverty levels between 2000 and 2012. These impacts, however, seem to derive from rather large measures taken.

And while policymakers regard Teghari as brush land – hectares of space overgrown with shrubs – to be cleared easily with no repercussions, conservationists regard these very same patches of thin forest as water reservoirs for the Terai, which originate in the Chure Range and feed the Godawari and Mohana rivers.

For conservationists, any sort of infrastructural incursion means water sources could run dry or that such activities could lead to soil erosion. Allowing the project to proceed unchecked, conservationists predict, could have irrevocable repercussions in just a few years.

Godawari Bridge connecting Kailali to the rest of the 9 hilly districts of Sudurpaschim Pradesh. Click picture for enlargement.

Since the forests and the Godawari River feed each other, and because the forest lies in the heart of Bhawar, and is also connected to the hilly Chure Range, they caution about hazardous threats to the environment should the forest patches be cleared. 

According to the Community Forest Investigation and Evaluation Report 2017/18, the Far-Western Region comprises nearly half of the total forest area (48 per cent) in the country. Almost two-thirds of land in Kailali district is covered by forests. So far, more than 30,000 hectares of forest land have been lost to encroachment.

The World Resources Institute, a global research organization based in Washington DC, has listed western Nepal as an “extremely highly” water-stressed area.

Water stress occurs when the demand for water exceeds the amount available during certain periods or when poor water quality restricts its use. Such stresses cause fresh water quality and quantity to deteriorate. With deforestation growing at an alarming rate every year—as much as 1.90 per cent according to a report by researcher Bharat Adhikari— water-stress levels are getting worse.

Ram Narayan Yadav, a forest officer at Attariya, Dhangadhi, views the decision to establish the capital in Teghari Forest is like lighting a forest fire. Encroachment in Teghari is already very high and land prices are already soaring overnight. Now, with the planned capital, people are primed to occupy even more land.

“The idea of building infrastructure for the sake of development is somewhat defensible. But the question here is whether we want to link ourselves to one-sided development or act for the best interest of all,” says Yadav.  

“The idea of building infrastructure for the sake of development is somewhat defensible. But the question here is whether we want to link ourselves to one-sided development or act for the best interest of all,” says Yadav.  

According to a 2018 descriptive report of Teghari Forest, the forest harbours a range of biodiversity, with flora and fauna that are threatened, and are protected, by the Forest Act, 1993.

Trees like khayer (Acacia catechu) and sal (Shorea robusta) are especially protected under the Act. Although the forest does have a handful of sal trees, which are commercially beneficial, it also houses jamun, rajbrikshya, khayer, bel, and sindhure, and other species that possess medicinal properties. Disregarding their ecological value and reducing species to income-generating commodities could disrupt the ecological cycle. 

Forests share symbiotic relationships with countless organisms, even though these relationships may not be readily evident. Studies have shown that trees communicate via mycorrhizal networks and lay the foundations for running the ecosystem they inhabit.

Sangeeta Rajbhandary, professor and botanist at Tribhuvan University, points to the forest’s rich biodiversity, and singles out the threatened and valuable species that are sheltered by Teghari.

Land crawling lizard as seen in the banks of Godawari River, Godawari Municipality. Click picture for enlargement.

“Species may vary in their size but they are all of equal environmental importance. One species cannot play the other’s role. Each has its own function in soil and water resources conservation,” says Rajbhandari.

She emphasizes the absence of economically valuable trees like sal and sisau in the area should not be used as rationale for disregarding the value provided by the other species, many of which have higher medicinal but lower commercial value. 

Conservationists spell out yet other benefits that forests such as Teghari provide.

About 10 per cent of moisture in the atmosphere is released by plants through transpiration. This takes place when plants absorb water through their roots and release water vapor through small pores on their leaves. This process also helps circulate water from the soil back into the atmosphere. Broad-leaf (Chauda Paate ban) forests, like Teghari, release quite a bit of water vapor through transpiration: their trees absorb water via their leaves, thus contributing to rainfall in the region.

A similar ecosystem cycle on the surface is kept in balance by wildlife that has flourished in the area since antiquity. Sixty-four percent of forest area in Godawari Municipality shelters an array of densely spread wildlife.

Teghari lies in the lowest Chure Range and is part of the trail that connects the Basanta Forest Corridor in the east and the Mohana-Laljadi Forest Corridor in the west, and plays an important role in conserving biodiversity and wildlife.

“Quadrupeds in massive numbers frequently migrate to Laljhadi-Mohana from the nearby forests. If the trails are fragmented by infrastructure, these animals cannot just stroll around Attariya Bazaar as an alternative,” says Raj Bahadur Air Chairperson of the Laljhadi-Mohana Forest Conservation Council.  

As it is, the Bhimdatta Highway, which dissects Teghari, has long hindered quadrupeds from moving freely. Every now and then, chittal, badel, and nilgai lose their lives to road accidents in the area. Since the forest is a transit point for animals, they use it to climb down from Chure to the Godawari River, especially during the summer, to quench their thirst.  

A scientific paper led by Bijan Gurung and published in the May 2018 edition of the journal Parks identified forest encroachment and large-infrastructure development at Basanta and illegal fuelwood collection in the Laljhadi-Mohana Corridor as “very high” threats.

Kailash Joshi, former chairperson of Teghari Community, says encroachment is taking a heavy toll on the forest. He stresses the government should first curb the illegal activities rampant in the area prior to starting infrastructure development for the capital zone.

Joshi, and some locals, think the debate over the capital resulted from power struggles between opposing parties. Instead of debating whether Teghari is appropriate or not for hosting the capital, policymakers are largely divided along political party lines.

“The issue is politically influenced,” says Joshi. “There are, in fact, other government lands nearby where the project may be located. Teghari is not the only option.” 

Disagreements over capitals and provinces are playing out across Nepal. The debate about  Sudurpashchim’s new capital, especially its massive infrastructure needs and environmental impacts, will resonate in provinces whose capitals will have to be built in new locations, and from scratch.

At least two other provinces (Provinces 3 and 5), which have temporary capitals at Hetauda and Butwal, are seeking new locations for their permanent capitals, preferably away from already established urban areas. The rest named existing cities Biratnagar, Janakpur, Pokhara, and Birendranagar as capitals. 

While political parties and conservationists stand their ground, it is local residents who seem to be willing to acknowledge both sides of the argument.

Saroj Deuwa, a student, has completely internalized the benefits that forest conservation brings. However, he is also aware that Sudurpaschchim’s people yearn for a development boom.

Chun Kumari Chaudhary with her cattle near Bhimdutta Highway, 20 km away from
Dhangadhi. Click picture for enlargement

Chun Kumari Chaudhari, 69, lives near Teghari Forest and has long grazed her cattle in its woods. Even as someone who has depended on the forest her entire life and whose way of living is deeply connected to it, she thinks positively of development.

“It is crucial that people’s lives get better, animals can find other places to graze,” says Chaudhary. 

Only a few decades ago, before human encroachment, Teghari was a dense forest. Locals living close by used to hear tigers roar as they migrated from the forests of Dang to Laljhadi and back.

Those migrations apparently don’t occur anymore except in the memories of people like Chun Kumari Chaudhary. Reminiscing about a wilderness long gone, they often sing:

Kahile hatti Laljhadi ma 

Kahile hatti Dang ma 

Baadal fati gham lagijau  

Bairagi ko aang ma… 

 The elephant is one day in Laljhadi

And another day in Dang

If only clouds would drift away

And sun shine on my back

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Sonam Lama was funded through a fellowship by Media Foundation for this reporting.

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