CLASS WAR

ROAD EXPANSION IN KATHMANDU
  Class war  
 
 
 
 
 

MURARI SHARMA

The Maoists have started a class war of sorts and victimized thousands of “neat and clean” Kathmandu dwellers. 

Ending his party’s indefinite strike on May 8, 2010, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal had said, “The shabbily dressed, poor, and hungry rustics who came to Kathmandu were humiliated by the so-called learned. These neat and clean intellectuals will now have to decide whether they want peace or war… Nepali people have maintained a diary on who wrote what.”

The Maoist-led government has opened the diary and launched the class war, as promised by Dahal, in the form of road expansion in Kathmandu. The coalition partners have clapped from the side because the affected are the “colonizers” in Kathmandu, not their own political constituencies. If it were happening in their constituencies, some of them would have promptly issued a threat of secession.

Curiously, the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML have maintained a deafening silence on the issue perhaps because the Kathmanduites had largely spurned them in the Constituent Assembly elections. 

However, this is not the first time that the government has been rapacious with acquiring citizens’ land and destroying their property. Governments of all hues have demonstrated this character. Let me cite some examples. 

During the Panchayat days, a file on compensation for the land on which the district police office in Tanhaun was built landed on my desk in the Home Ministry’s Police Unit. The land belonged to a citizen but the police office had occupied claiming it to be community land. The owner fought a case in courts for some 20 plus years and established his ownership. The police proposed compensation at a rate applicable 20-plus years ago. With the file arrived a mid-level officer from the Police Headquarters defending their proposal. 

I rejected their proposal and insisted on compensation based on the current rate. The police officer went to my boss, who advised me to support the police proposal. When I refused, my boss asked me to write my opinion and forward the file. I proposed the compensation at the current rate, cited several arguments justifying it, and moved the file up the ladder. The ministry did not take a decision for three months after which I left the Police Unit. 

Luxembourg, the country with the world’s highest per capita income, has the narrowest city roads. Kathmandu’s roads are highways in comparison.

After 1990 too, governments have time and again launched such testosterone-fired demolition and road expansion campaigns. And they had two things in common. First, they were broadly failed governments wanting to earn cheap popularity by doing something hastily to satisfy their ideological conviction or please their core constituencies. Second, they were governments having little respect for democracy and for the due process of law. 

Remember Keshav Sthapit, the former mayor of Kathmandu twice, and Deepak Bohara, the transport minister in one of the coalition governments? They had demolished houses to expand the roads of Kathmandu. They were part of failing regimes and their commitment to democracy was tenuous, at best; and they had no respect for the due process, common standards and proper compensation. Selectiveness was their modus operandi. For instance, they had left Everest Hotel and Pepsi Cola compounds untouched while bulldozing others’ properties. 

The current government not only fits that pattern; it also has crossed all past limits in victimizing thousands of people in Kathmandu in the name of expanding city roads. It is a dying regime desperately seeking cheap popularity to survive another day, and the Maoists, the leading coalition partners, could not care less about democracy and rule of law. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not opposed to government retrieving encroached public land, demolishing houses and other structures built in breach of the existing rules, and expanding the road. In fact, the encroached land should have been recovered and illegally built structures pulled down long time back. Unfortunately, whenever complaints were filed about illegal encroachment or construction, the concerned officials milked the rule flouters and let them continue. 

I care about the rule of law, which is at the heart of democratic society. The rule of law requires that the law must be used equally; it also calls for a due process, common standards for similar city zones with the exception of sensitive historical and cultural monuments, and proper compensation for citizens’ property subjected to acquisition or demolition. 

The due process requires the government to establish whether the demolition of citizens’ houses is necessary; if necessary, whether doing so is lawful; if lawful, whether the affected people have been given proper compensation for their property and timely notice for demolition; and if all else has been done, whether common standards have been applied in similar zones. The current government has failed in all these tests.

The rule has not been applied equally. To encroach public land or build on it is illegal, and to condone an illegal act for money is criminal. In law, a criminal act is graver and carries higher punishment than just an illegal act. But the current government has not taken any action against the officials who pocketed the money and condoned the illegal act. And the process has been far from due.

About the necessity, it is good to have wide roads in big cities to facilitate the smooth movement of large volumes of traffic serving a burgeoning population. But big city roads are not essential for progress and prosperity. If city roads are small, you can largely overcome the traffic bottlenecks by better traffic management—one-way streets, vehicles-free streets, increased use of bicycles and public transport, development of subway and expressway, etc. 

Take Luxembourg and London for example. Luxembourg, the country with the highest per capita income in the world, has the narrowest city roads. Kathmandu’s roads look like highways in comparison to Luxembourg’s. I often tell my friends, if and when Nepal develops, Kathmandu will look like London with small streets, narrow alleyways and dead ends, which have not prevented the British capital from competing with New York, which has the widest streets, for the honor of being the global financial capital. 

The government also stands on a shaky legal ground. It has said that the notice for expansion of the roads was issued some 35 years ago. In law, you have a termination time, and none of the laws of Nepal, for that matter of any other country, allows unlimited validity of a government notice. What is more, in some cases, compensation was not given for the land and structures covered in this phase of expansion. And the likely victims were not given enough time to relocate or go to court. 
Finally, this government has failed to apply and enforce common standards in the same city zone. For instance, a victim in Gyaneshwar has told me that while the road in his area has been widened to 11 meters, which has gobbled up his house and virtually entire strip of land on which it had been built; at other places in the same area, the same road has been left much narrower.

If all this does not suggest that the current road expansion in Kathmandu City is a class war and ethnic war blended into one, what does? Nepal is not a communist state where citizens have no property rights. So this cheap popularity-seeking action of a dying regime to please its core constituencies must be replaced by one that respects the rule of law. 

http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=32010

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