‘Power is fortified not just by what it destroys but also by what it creates’: Arundhati Roy
Prior to the lockdown, there would occur a weekly ritual that involved the circulation of ideas, imagery, and people–between Kathmandu and Nijgadh. That ritual has paused for now. On May 15, in full violation of the Supreme Court decision, the president announced that the construction of the Nijgadh International Airport would move ahead. It is thus likely that once the lockdown is lifted, the weekly ritual will resume, which looked like this before the lockdown.
Every weekend, a Bolero would collect one or two members from two or three households in Kathmandu for a trip to Nijgadh, a town spread on either side of the East-West Highway, that keenly awaits the arrival of an airport yet to come. For now, a section of the town waits for the Kathmandu people–the potential suitors of Nijgadh–every weekend. Something very interesting is unfolding in Nijgadh–an individuated idea of bikas that appears to be successfully infusing an otherwise sleepy town with a level of ambition and aspiration that’s just about enough to convince the Kathmandu class to get onboard the Bolero, pamphlet in hand.
The four-page pamphlet is filled with texts and imagery–of dancers neatly dressed in cultural attires, a series of colourful ghaderi, residential land plots spread over a large swathe of land filled with trees, next to the highway, and an aesthetically pleasant land-use form featuring landscapes dotted with gardens and gated communities. This pamphlet encapsulates the middle-class dream conjured by a marketing team comprising landlords-cum-real estate agents and celebrities. The former have an astute marketing plan; the latter, star power and a household name. For customers with money, this team has created the perfect pitch. The team operates with a degree of aggression that is impressive in its relentless pursuit of approval from its clients – the Kathmandu middle class – to invest in a ghaderi or two in Nijgadh.
After every trip, the families return to convince their neighbour to get aboard the Bolero the following weekend to invest in a ghaderi next to the one they have just bought. An imagined future is beginning to take shape. For this airport-fueled flight of capital, the sky could be the limit. It is a classic case of neoliberalism in action – a literally ‘moving’ story possible only under the aegis of capitalism in which the speculative land market relies on state-endorsed rhetoric of bikas to realize its ambition. Something more poignant is also unfolding in Nijgadh–one that involves people that are less ‘ordinary’ than the ones described thus far.
Almost at least once every week, Kishan of Kathghat calls a well-wisher in Kathmandu to inquire about the new happenings around the airport: “When is the airport going to come? What weight does the new supreme court decision to put a halt on the construction of the airport carry? When will the airport really come?” Kathghat is an old Tharu village in Nijgadh, a few kilometers south of the East-West Highway, past the forest. It is one of three villages that are under threat of displacement and dispossession – if and when the airport is complete. The other two are Tangiya and Matiyani. Tangiya is a mixed-caste community of Janajati and Bahun-Chhetri families. The community was created through a forestation programme imported from Burma in the late 70s: ‘tong’ means ‘hill’ and ‘yar’ means ‘plantation’. According to the locals, the government picked their grandparents and parents from the roadside and highways to do the plantation work, with the promise of pay in the short-term and a land title in exchange in the longer term. The quickly assembled community thus formed had to deforest and replant one plot after another with species deemed valuable. In each plot, they would stay for three years for the saplings to grow and then move to the next plot within the vicinity, in the middle of the forest.
The ‘Tong-Yar’ programme came to an end with the onset of multiparty democracy in 1990. In the subsequent years as ‘Tong-Yar’ became Tangiya, residents started hearing about the airport, starting in the early 90s. “I remember as a child, I would notice outsiders coming to our land with strange devices and digging holes. They said they were testing the soil. I didn’t know why they were doing that,” recalls a local. Those seemingly harmless, intermittent incursions that left the locals curious have now morphed into a looming threat to their very existence in Tangiya, even as they continue to wait for the land title that was promised in lieu of their deed. A ‘Tangiya Basti Concerned Committee’ was subsequently formed, which put forth a set of relocation and resettlement demands to the government.
Matiyani is made up of mostly Madhesi Dalit households of mostly Paswan and Kohri caste groups. “The government is like our parents. We are their children. They are duty-bound to take care of us,” says a Matiyani elderly hopeful of rehabilitation. They have joined the Tangiya committee to amplify their demands. However, if the organic grassroots history of land movement in Nepal is any indication, for the Nepali state, the Matiyani residents are not entitled to rehabilitation because they do not have the land title. Under a sovereign power, that is how rights and responsibilities are enacted with regard to the landless even if the constitution mandates that the state provide land ownership to landless Dalits. Residents of Tangiya don’t have titles too. But they have ‘history’ to take recourse to, to hold the state accountable, for Tangiya is the creation of the Nepali state. Kathghat, on the other hand, bears a different history to that of Tangiya or Matiyani.
Kathghat is a three-century-old settlement of predominantly landowning Tharu farmers. About 25 percent of its population migrated to Kathghat from the hills over three decades ago. “Ever since it was announced that an international airport would be built here, people from Kathmandu started to pour their money in the plots of land here,” says a local. “They buy huge swathes of land at exorbitant prices. It’s like they take money out of a storage and pour it here,” says another. In recent years, it is common to see outsiders make a foray, on private jeeps, into the forest to scan the farmlands of Kathghat and Tangiya. Against the collective demand of “two bigha and five kattha” of land for resettlement, the government has started handing out monetary recompense to some of the residents of Tangiya and the ‘pahadeys’ of Kathghat. However, the Tharu families have refused to accept the recompense – not out of choice, but compulsion – because it is not enough to repair the relationship between the Tharu farmers and their land that the airport threatens to disrupt.
The Kathmandu-led entry of speculative land market into the lush green fields of Kathghat, perched on a hillock deep inside the forest, has effectively turned the land into a commodity. As a result, the locals are being pushed to exit their own land as farmers and re-enter as its buyer. “They say that our delayinging in leaving this place will only add trouble to our children’s lives, as the price of land is soaring by the day,” says one of them. But with the monetary recompense that the government has on offer, the Tharu farmers would no longer be able to purchase enough land in their own village to allow them to farm like they have for centuries. “We want to be able to live the same way and eat the same way as we always have,” says a local. The state’s recompense reveals a wilful ignorance about local ecologies, cultural life, and livelihoods, all organically engendered through a long history of association between people, land, and nature. It is possible that the Tharu farmers, including the farmers of Matiyani and Tangiya, would have to bear the cost of that ignorance, as it threatens to create conditions of impoverishment that the farmers may take a long time to recover from.
There are other equally critical environmental and financial costs of the airport that have been well-documented. The proposed area for the construction of the airport, to be carried out in three different stages, cuts through the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL). TAL, which connects various protected areas extending across the Nepal-India border, is a wildlife habitat and migratory corridor for animals including the Bengal tiger, the wild Asian elephant, the Indian rhinoceros, the sloth bear, the South Asian river dolphin, and the chital, as well as 500 species of birds. The airport, once constructed, will have cost 2.4 million trees and USD 6.7 billion, according to estimates. Environmentalists are rightfully enraged about the potential loss of biodiversity as are citizens in general over what is widely considered a misallocation of enormous funds in a country financially reeling under the effect of the pandemic, a country that is yet to come to terms with the pandemic’s long-term economic impact.
For the residents of Tangiya, Kathghat, and Matiyani, in the face of a looming threat to their very existence, it is only normal that they are primarily concerned with the urgent and the immediate: their shelter and the well-being of their family. As such, almost every new visitor who forays into one of the villages with questions about the airport ends up at the receiving end of a hopeful counter-question from the locals: “How are the airport people discussing our relocation?”
If it is a politician coming to town, for some, the hope multiplies, or so it seemed with regards to an event: a political assembly that was to take place in Nijgadh on the morning of 26 November, 2019. The quiet and hopeful acquiescence by the locals to the project, which outright encroaches on their land and livelihood, is rooted in an uncomfortable acknowledgement of their location in Nepali history and society: it is born of a people and place devoid of ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, and more importantly, a ‘language’ – for articulating their struggle and existence – that the Nepali public can understand. The ‘subaltern’ can speak, but not in a language that the ‘mainstream’ has ever attempted to learn and understand.
The political assembly
Depending on what walk of life one has walked, the political assembly of November 26 carries myriad meanings to all who planned to attend the assembly. For a local gossiper who gathers every morning in a tea shop by the highway, the assembly is organized not so much to expedite the construction of the airport, but to inject energy into the gradually dipping local real estate market. For a slightly more informed local among the less informed of Kathghat, the assembly “does not offer anything concrete,” but he would still like to attend, with a set of demands on a placard, with the hope that “it could still mean something symbolically”; for the more organized and politically suave local leaders of Tangiya, there is hope that the assembly will address the resettlement demands. For an elderly of Matiyani, there is a vague plan to hang on to the coat-tails of the Tangiya leadership en route to the assembly, and an even vaguer idea of the assembly itself: “Prachanda is perhaps going to say something about bikas in Nijgadh.” For the chief officer overseeing the construction of the airport, the assembly carries little weight in the face of his resolute commitment to build the airport: “We should dare to dream big and rally the forces to achieve it.” For a local youth leader participating in a pre-assembly meeting in a hotel the night before, the assembly “is a necessary propaganda to win the upcoming election.” To each their own.
The following morning, the owner of the hotel is readying for the event. “I told them their event will be successful only if there are at least twenty thousand people at the assembly,” he says. A mile further down the hotel, on the other side of the highway, a riverbank is filled with people – residents of Nijgadh Bazaar, Tangiya, Matiyani, Kathghat, and many other far-flung villages of the district – marching towards the assembly venue: the Tudhikhel by the Pasaha River, that doubles as a dry mud-road when it is not monsoon. Prachanda finally arrives, four hours behind schedule. The event commences. A district-level politician delivers the opening salvo: “Just how long will we have to wait for the Fast Track [highway]! Just how long will we have to wait for the airport! How long before bikas comes to Nijgadh! The residents of Nijgadh are tired of waiting! The residents of Nijgadh, all of whom have gathered here, demand that we know! And that we know about it all today!” This is an apparent call out made to Prachanda, the next speaker, on behalf of the people. If ‘politics’ is a farcical exercise in lulling the ordinary into a passive acquiescence while shamelessly dangling the carrot of hope, whether they buy it or not, this is it.
It is a futile exercise to report or comment on what Prachanda announced in response. With the by-election only a month away, the assembly – a ‘show of force’ of the unified communist parties – is one part ‘vote bank’ politics, with an added call to ‘nation-building’. An auto-rickshaw driver half-interested in the event summarizes the other part: “This programme is a success depending on how the land value of Nijgadh will have changed over time, starting tomorrow morning”. In other words, for some local residents, it appears that the event is merely a pretext that mobilizes the ‘airport’ in order to expedite the integration of land into a market that is already beginning to rework individual lives, society, and the environment.
Let’s revisit the question that Kishan of Kathghat asks, “When will the airport come?” Beyond the technical rationalities put forward to explain the necessity of the airport, as a fictitious commodity, the ‘airport’, in service of electoral politics and private capital, has already mutated into forms other than an actual airport itself. As a metaphor, an imagery, and a rhetoric in perpetual circulation, the airport is already winning votes, minting money, and mobilizing people, as we speak. Seen in this way, for the politicians and landlords-cum-real estate agents alike, the airport has already come – as more votes, more moolah. For the middle class of Kathmandu, inside a Bolero every weekend with a pamphlet in hand and a window-seat view into an imagined future, the airport has already come. For the ordinary residents of Kathghat, Tangiya, and Matiyani, the airport has already come – as the fear and uncertainty that now pervade the everyday, of being displaced and dispossessed. In Nepal’s tenuous tryst with the itinerary of bikas, after the highway, and then the hydropower, the Nijgadh International Airport is its latest incarnation – as a multi-headed hydra. The airport has arrived.