Speaking for Kulekhani’s Diaspora

In Nepal, the public and the Government alike have had little experience with projects that involve considerable displacement of people. The Kulekhani Hydroelectric Project was one of the first. Before proceeding with much larger projects such as Karnali and Budhi Gandaki, it is urgent that we learn the lessons of Kulekhani.

When talk of a dam or reservoir began in the late 1960's Kulekhani was already reeling from the fallout of Rajpath, the highway into Kathmandu, which took away the jobs of porters and merchants alike. At first, these people ridiculed the notion that Kulekhani khola – dammed – could inundate their khet and bari. But they had understimated the technological strength and administrative capacity of the state machinery, and disbelief gave way to fear and uncertainty as bulldozers arrived and evacuation notices were posted.

In 1985, I studied the situation of Kulekhani valley's people — primarily Tamangs, and some Magars, Newars, Bahuns and Chettris. Today, those displaced by the project are, by and large, worse off than when they were in Kulekhani. Most have moved to poorer land around Hetauda, lost their previous societal standing, been separated from their relatives and communities, found no use for their traditional skills, and are dispirited and nostalgic for their old hillsides. In short, they are miserable, and they are convinced others have benefitted at their expense.

In all, the project displaced 3,500 people and acquired 4,015 ropanis of land, 450 houses and 50 ghattas — modest in comparision to projects in India, Indonesia, or Brazil, but sufficient to highlight the suffering caused by displacement.

When the land aquisition began, Tamang women of Markhu village stood up in militant opposition. To them, their land was everything, and the compensation money, they feared, would go only to men.

They reasoned rightly. The stories of damages caused by the false sense of security when men suddenly acquire a big sum of cash are many. One gullible young Tamang who received NRs. 65,000 lost all of it at the casino in Kathmandu within months, and then wound up as a dishwasher in the capital. Two individuals with entrepreneurial ambitions but little experience bought a truck and soon went bankrupt. Many succumbed to gambling and drinking.

The wisdom with which Kulekhani residents spent their compensation money depended on the extent of their exposure to the world outside and to market economies. The few who were used to handling money and had family contacts outside the valley were quickly able to parlay their lump sum amount into sound investments elsewhere. Those whose loss was the greatest were people with a deep attachment to the land, such as the Tamangs and Magars, the less educated and more community-oriented tillers of the soil.

Deeply flawed was the whole plan for resettlement and compensation. The villagers were shown remote forest land in Bara, which they were to reject. But they were not given another option. With only rumours to guide them, and the approach of the planting season, most peasants panicked. They took the cash, and headed south for Makwanpur. Word reached Hetauda before them, and overnight land value shot up five to six times. Left to rehabilitate themselves, the villagers turned to rapacious middlemen, or they wasted large sums on travel. No effort had been made to train, counsel, or otherwise prepare these hill folk for the severe physical and psychological dislocation they would experience.

Worse off are those who settled in Chisapani, southeast of Hetauda. Their monetary compensation bought them inferior land which can only sustain one crop per year. These people are still finding out the best ways to farm this unfamiliar land they bought.

Who should have looked after the people of Kulekhani? The project agreement shows it was the Electricity Department which should have resettled the displaced households, but it lacks the administrative and technical expertise necessary for the task. Naturally, as the project coordinator, its primary goal was to complete the project on time, with the least extra expenditure. In the absence of special agreements, the Department could not count on Government agencies dealing with housing or forestry to help.

Clearly, the cash compensation policy implemented in Kulekhani was designed to incur the least financial burden on the Government. The policy implicitly, attended to the interest of the majority (national) population, while ignoring that of the local population of Kuleakhani. The question of equity in sharing benefits and costs was never addressed. The compensation was too small for the sacrifices made. The outcome is unjustifiable and immoral.

Privately, many officials showed keen concern for the displaced people, but they did not or were unable to help. This was perceived as negligence by the affected people, who became enraged. But unchannelled rage was of little use. The traditional village headmen were disregarded by project authorities, and the resettlement committee was composed of politicians and administrators, whom the peasants distrusted. An attempt to organize a sit-in returned from the capital dispirited.

There are lights in Kathmandu, but the people who paid for it are scattered in dark, desolate settlements in Makwanpur. Perhaps when they switch on their lights at dusk, urban dwellers should spare a thought for those who were forced to give up their roots. It is still not too late to help them.

Jagdish Pokharel is pursuing a doctoral degree in Environmental Planning and Resource Management at MIT in the United States.

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Himal Southasian