Print Edition - 2014-08-16  |  On Saturday

Sleepless in Kathmandu’s slums

  • For slum dwellers who live along Kathmandu’s various rivers, monsoons bring all manner of hardship. The best they can do to protect themselves while they wait for a permanent resolution to their resettlement plans is to come up with small measures to kee
- Umesh Pokharel
Sleepless in Kathmandu’s slums

Aug 15, 2014-Pranimaya Rai lives in the Pathibhara squatters’ settlement on the banks of Dhobikhola.  Every year, incessant rain and floods threaten her settlement, and this year was no exception. In late June this year, the Dhobikhola swelled and caused havoc on the settlements around its banks, and in the months since, with the monsoon beginning to unleash its full fury, things have gotten more precarious for Rai and others like her.

For her, the pre-monsoon months bring nights filled with apprehension about the coming monsoon every year. Pranimaya remembers a particular night in June and how that night started her current season of worrying and fretting. She’d woken up around midnight because her clothes were wet. Half asleep, she stretched her hand, moved it around and found her room inundated. Hurriedly, she woke up and opened the door, but that only led to her room’s getting flooded further. It soon dawned on her that her settlement had been flooded by the river.

 It was only after she had spent two hours outside, in the rain, that she was ready to go back home. The rain subsided, and so did the river. As the water level receded, her neighbours helped her bail out the water from her house, and she was finally able to make her way back in.

Whenever the pre-monsoon season comes around, Pranimaya and her teenage daughter, Pabitra Rai, start making changes to their sleep schedules. “When I sleep, my daughter doesn’t and when she sleeps, I remain awake,” says Pranimaya. Her memories are filled with such types of adaptive measures that they have had to come up with in her settlement for close to 15 years. But because she lives in limbo, the only thing that she can do is prepare for the worst and hope that she’ll one day find a place to live, far away from the river, in a new life where she is not a squatter.

Squatters who have occupied the banks of rivers in Kathmandu—including that of Dhobikhola, Manohara, Bagmati  and Bishnumati—risk losing home and property every year, but they can’t build the necessary long-term structures to protect themselves because they are supposed to be living through a transitory phase.

And since they have illegally inhabited the riverbanks, the government is unwilling to do anything to make things easier for them. They are in no position to invest huge sums on protective brick-and-mortar structures because for most of them—who live on the fringes of the mainstream economy, doing odd jobs to maintain a hand- to-mouth existence—investing huge sums in structures that they might very well have to discard at a moment’s notice in the future seems like money wasted.

Furthermore, they are also mired in a state of helplessness that’s ringed by faint flickerings of hope: they have been deemed as ‘landless people’ by the government, and they hope that because of that designation, they will, some day, be relocated to permanent settlements.

In the interminable interim, squatters make do by living in a state of perennial apprehension. For Munu Shrestha of Jagritinagar settlement in Shantinagar, just like with Pranimaya, every monsoon means sleepless nights too.  “I wake up after every half an hour to check if the Bagmati’s water level is rising.  Fortunately, we haven’t had a catastrophic flood this year,” she says. Thing almost came to pass on July 29, 2014: she says that if the Bagmati had not subsided in another half an hour, the damage it would have wrought would have been immense. As it is, the flood damaged two houses in her neighbourhood that night.  

Whatever safety measures the squatters adopt seem extremely inadequate. For the most part, it means shifting things around. During the dry months, the slum dwellers use the riverbanks, all the way up to the river’s edge, to rear chickens and pigs. And when the rains come, they shift their small farms to higher ground. “This is how slum people adapt,” says Sunil Gurung of Jagritinagar. As for improvements to their dwellings, the most that the squatters can do is to build their doors higher up from the floor-level, to prevent the river water from seeping in under the door.

Working together on reinforcing embankments does work as a much better buffer, though. In quite a few settlements, slum dwellers have elevated the riverbank with sandbags, and they have even planted trees. Slum dwellers who live beside the Manohara River have, for example, planted Lahare pipal along the riverbed.

Although the help that they get from others mostly comes in the form of emergency interventions, the slum dwellers are thankful for what they get from organisations like the Nepal Police. “When the Bagmati River flooded my house some years ago, the police helped me to salvage some essentials,” says Munu Shrestha.  Also, various organisations working on disaster-risk management do collect information, prepare reports and provide some relief to flood hit populations.

However, most of them seem to be patchwork operations, and some slum dwellers question the transparency mechanisms of the funding that goes into such relief packages.  “They say that relief packages are distributed by various organisations. But I have never gotten any,” says one Bhagawoti of Manohara.

For slum dwellers, it’s all about playing the waiting game and hoping to hear about the government’s plans for them. ”We are eagerly waiting for the government to identify the genuinely landless and relocate us. Once the relocation is made, we no longer need to face such problems,” says Buddiman Chahar, who lives in the Thapathali squatter settlement.

Published: 16-08-2014 11:09

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