Long and winding

  • If the Koshi Highway is in the interest of the nation, the state should be prepared to compensate those who lose land in its construction
- MATTHÄUS REST
Long and winding

Jun 5, 2014-

In early 2013, the first jeeps reached Phyaksinda in the upper Arun Valley. This was 21 years later than planned by the World Bank. Originally, the access road to the Arun-3 hydropower plant, arguably the most iconic of Nepal’s numerous invisible dams, was supposed to be completed in 1992. But while the dam remains a spectral presence, hardly anybody bothers to talk much about it anymore in the villages around the proposed dam site. Another project is taking shape in front of their eyes: the North-South Koshi Highway.

Highway, no dam

With negotiations for a detailed project agreement on the reincarnated Arun-3 pending between the governments of Nepal and India for the past three years, it is this highway project that finally made the road, instead of Arun-3, arrive in Phyaksinda. The road will cross the Arun right in front of the dam site and continue towards the Chinese border on her right bank, entering the buffer zone of the Makalu-Barun National Park (another line of conflict I cannot elaborate on here—be certain that Park officials are anything but enthusiastic). Until this point, it basically follows the alignment established during the 1990s. One of the many problems connected to this dam project on indefinite hiatus was that people—although compensated for the access road in 1992—were later allowed to register the same land and able to sell it. Thereby, some received money for a road that was not built while others bought land in good faith only to realise years later that the government claimed to hold title over it, too.

On the other side of the Valley, things are less ambiguous—yet far from pleasant. According to a senior political leader from the village of Hedangna in Pathibhara VDC, in early 2013, a group of landowners handed in a written motion to the Department of Roads (DoR) demanding compensation for the land lost. The DoR declined by stating that there was no provision for compensating landowners in national highways constructed without foreign funding. Heavy equipment was seized and work was halted for about a year. Representatives of the three major parties started to exert pressure on the villagers. Also, an article appeared in Gorkhapatra further intimidating renitent landowners that they might come across as the perpetrators of the worst crime: bikas birodhi—anti-developmentalism. This is all the more ironic given the history of the communities around the Arun-3 dam site. Deeply disappointed by the cancellation of the hydropower project in 1995, they have been waiting for the road to arrive for more than 20 now.

Connected by land

All of this reached my ears as I made my way up the Valley from Khandbari to Hedangna. I was reminded of Jawaharlal Nehru and his infamous speech in front of villagers soon to be displaced by a hydropower dam in 1948: “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” Or was I wrong and this was not an exercise in decreed patriotic masochism but the DoR was simply acting out of a feudal logic that understands all land ultimately as the property of the state? Could it be, then, that the DoR was the successor of Gyanendra Shah? After talking to friends in Hedangna, however, I had to reconsider: they unanimously confirmed that they would prefer the road on their land, even without compensation.

Back in Khandbari, I paid a visit to the DoR’s office. A young engineer explained to me that the landowners had never demanded compensation, but instead obstructed construction because the Department had decided to change the alignment of the road to avoid a rock face that would have required excessive blasting with considerable financial and environmental disadvantages. The new route was considerably lower, thereby bypassing the main village of Hedangna. To connect the settlement, the Department, in consultation with the inhabitants, had come up with an extension road that would go through the village and join the highway again a couple of kilometres further up the Valley—what people referred to as ‘ring road’. After this agreement was reached, work on the main road resumed.

In the account of the inhabitants of Hedangna, however, the cause and effect were reversed. They told me that the contractor had not been happy with the alignment and used the building freeze as a pretext to change it. Only after further threats of obstruction did the DoR agree to build the ring road. I also heard a rumour that it was one of the road engineers who solicited people into demanding compensation, substantiating the assumption that the whole alignment change was a matter of politics, not a mere technicality. When I asked them whether they were happy with the ring road, a high school teacher said: “Better a blind uncle than no uncle.”All in all, as so often in the past, my interlocutors felt outsmarted by external forces and played off against each other.

Dispossessed citizens

“What are they complaining about?” one could ask. Not only will they get a major highway going through their Valley but also a bypass right from the start. What is at stake, I believe, is an issue of equality as the approach of the DoR creates two forms of dispossessed citizens. First, those happy enough to have a road with foreign funding arriving at their doorstep and being compensated. And second, the unlucky ones pacified by the road engineer who said, “We don’t pay compensation because the value of the land along the road will increase.”

Beyond that, the DoR’s argument is deeply flawed and has to be turned from its head to its feet. If a village is connected to the road network by request of its inhabitants and the Department agrees to pay for it, it seems reasonable that the community provides the necessary land free of cost. But a case like the Koshi Highway is a completely different matter. If this road is in fact in the interest of the nation, the state’s organs should be prepared to compensate those who lose land in its construction. Just because Nehru can take the king on a free ride to Lhasa does not mean this is right. Something more precious might be lost than a few crores of compensation in the numerous new road projects pursued by the DoR: the opportunity to demonstrate to rural communities the possibility of a state that is not short-sightedly trying to get away with blackmailing and dispossessing its citizens, but one that is playing fair, respecting private property and treating its citizens equally.

Rest is a social anthropologist currently affiliated with the Nepa School of Social Sciences and Humanities

Published: 06-06-2014 09:16

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