Villagers of the valley

When Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere was planning to setup Kathmandu´s first college in 1918, he looked for open space. The site he selected for the Tri Chandra College was among vegetable patches to the east of the Rani Pokhaii water tank, then well outside the city limits.

Today, the college sits in the middle of metropolitan Kathmandu. The quest foi land for private and public construction has taken developers further and further from the immediate outskirts of the old city. The Rana aristocracy began the trend by choosing the isolation of the more distant sites like Sanepa, Maharajganj, Jawalakhel and Min Bhawan to indulge in their penchant for sprawling European estates.

And so it has continued, with government complexes, new army barracks and private homes vying with each other in a race to ´cover´ more ground. POT all the space that Greater Kathmandu requires for its expansion, there has always been one way to get it — convert agricultural lands into urban use. Gauchar Airport usurped pasture lands traditionally under the jurisdiction of the Pashupati Nath temple. In the late 1950s, Tribhuvan University was built-on prime agricultural land below the town of Kirtipur.

By the end of the 1960s, much of the low-lying lands on either side of the Tukucha and Dhobikhola streams, and the western shores of the Bagmati and Bishnumati were converted to non-agricultural use. By the early 1970s, areas formerly considered rural were colonised Bansbari, Chabahil, Sinamangal, Teku/Kalimati, Baneswor, Bishalnagar, Samakhusi and Lagankhel.

The completion of the Ring Road helped the late-comers to push out farther into the countryside: Jorpati and Thimi, the Kalanki-Thankot strip, Saibu, Bhaisepati, Sat Dobaato/ Khumaltar, the Sunakotbi to Thecho strip, the region south of Swayambhu stupa (Ichangu, Sitapaila and Seuchatar), and the semi-circle defined by Balaju-Gongabu-Dhapasi-Bhadragaon- Mahankal.

Today, the search for an "outside" location for a sizeable facility would lead to the last remaining farmlands on the valley fringe. In the early 1970s, the founders of Budhanilkantha School marched all the way north to the base of Shivapuri ridge before they could find a good location. Today, given the way the Budanilkantha area has been developed, they would probably have had to head out of the Valley altogether. In fact, that is exactly what the newly chartered Kathmandu University has done. "Kathmandu" only in name, the trustees have bought land in Dhulikhel, the adjacent valley to the east.

The takeover of village lands has been unrelenting. A 1936 urban development study, known as the Padco Report, estimated that the price of land in the Valley had increased by 633 per cent between 1964 and 1978.Thesame study concluded that the built-up area in the Valley would have to increase by 41 per cent by the year 2001 in order to accommodate the growing population´s demand for housing.


There are three factors that make urbanisation of the Valley unique and potentially disruptive. Before the 1950s, Kathmandu was already one of the most urbanised pockets of the Himalayan region as well as the contiguous plains of north India. The urbanisation of the last five decades, therefore, occurred in what was historically the most densely populated pocket of the entire region.

Kathmandu´s urban development does not convert wastelands or forests into city blocks. It takes away land which has been tilled for centuries. It competes for land use with a productive, highly labour-intensive and sophisticated agricultural ecology. The Valley´s rice yield per acre has been one of the highest in the world. Historically, culturally, architecturally, and in terms of population density, it would be far more accurate to speak of ´re-urbanisation´ of the Valley than simply ´urbanisation´. Many urban civilizations "die" before newer urban forms replace them. But Kathmandu Valley´s civilisation never died; its mixture of town and country and their respective populations never disappeared. This unique legacy of a living social mosaic makes urbanisation of the Valley one of the most challenging and disruptive processes in the ongoing saga of global urbanisation.

While it is evident that urban development has dramatically altered the face andenvironment of the ´209 sq mile Valley, the attention has always  been  focused  on  the process  of urbanisation and not on rural space that is up for conversion. We forget too easily that urbanisation has two sides. There is placement, but there is also displacement. As new, badly-planned settlements emerge, villagers who are being displaced are ignored or taken for granted.

In the discourse of planners, bureaucrats, developers and speculators, it would seem as if the new urban settlements were being built on vacant and ´marginal´ lands. You would not know that this rural space is made op of densely settled villages and agro-towns, exceptionally fertile lands, and a complex network of social and economic relationships that sustain a multi-ethnic population.

If a sustainable, long-term solution to the question of limited space is to be found, it cannot be done by ignoring the people, land, settlements and economy of rural Kathmandu Valley. And at some point, we must say to the urban developers, "This far and no further."

Of the nearly one million residents of Kathmandu Valley, close to half live in one of the 107 "gaon bikas samitis", or GBS (the administrative units formerly known as village panch ayats). These 107 samitis are dispersed among the three districts of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. The southern portion of Lalitpur lies outside the Valley perimeter and is largely unaffected by urbanisation.

Since at least the time of Prithvi Narayan Shah´s takeoverofthe Valley in 1769, these rural areas have been characterised by three types of settlements. Firstly, there are the compact and densely populated agro-towns, which are inhabited by Newar cultivators, artisansand petty merchants. Of the 107 samitis, 25 fall under this category. Among them are the historic settlements of Tokha, Sanfchu, Kirtipur (Kathmandu), Khokana, Haiisiddhi, Bungamati, Lubhu {Lalitpur), Thimi and Bode (Bhaktapur). These Newar mini-towns are invariably built on high ground, called tars, so that the adjacent valley-bottom lands, dols, could be intensively cultiv ated. The bulk of the rural Newar population belongs to the Jyapu sub-caste.

A second type of rural settlement is the mixed-GBS, where Newars and non-Newars live side-by-side. There are 36 such communities, inhabitedby Chhetris, Batons, Tamangs, Newars and others: Manamaiju, Dharmathali, Naya Naikap, Thankot Mahadev (all in Kathmandu District), Chapagaon, Dhapakhel (Lalitpur), Dadhikot, Gundu (Bhaktapur), and others.

The third and most common type of rural settlement is the ´parbatey GBS´, where non-Newars constitute at least two-thirds of the population. There are 46 samitis under this category. Typically, like parbatey communities outside the Valley, these settlements are widely spread out over the GBS area. Examples of parbatey communities are Budanilkantha, Chaimale, Dahachowk, Mulpani, Seuchatar (all in Kathmandu), Badikhel,Jharuwarasi (Lalitpur), Nagarkot and Sirutar (Bhaktapur).

The ethnic makeup of the Valley´s rural population, based on estimates, is as follows: 38 percent Newar; 39.5 percent Bahun and Chhetii; 13.8 percent Tamang; and 9 percent ´other´. In the Bahun-Chettri group, there is a Valley-wide predominance of Chhetris (26.1 per cent) over Eahtms (13.4 per cent). One explanation for this might be that the Chhetris, as soldiers, were given preference in settling down in the Valley by the erstwhile rulers. There is evidence that Mall a kings in the 16th and 17th centuries employed Chhetris in their armies before the advent of Prithvi Narayan.

The rural areas of the Valley have been referred to as kanth, and the people are knows askanthays. Classically, a kantkay is aperson with one foot in the city and one in the village. The term aptly captures the predicamentof present-day residents of the rural communities of Kathmandu Valley. The majority continues to live in villages but depends overwhelmingly on the city for employment, consumer goods, labour and a market for produce. The need for off-farm work to supplement agricultural income is vital. Eighty per cent of rural households have at least one member working in the off-farm sector.

Not all ethnic groups, obviously, are engaged in the same type of off-farm work. By far the most common form of employment is jagir—salaried employment in the lower levels of government or the private sector. Jagir requires some education and fluency in Nepali, which has made such work a natural preserve for rural Chhetris and Bahuns. However, all individuals irrespective of caste are potential jagir-holders if they have a middle school or higher education. Very few women are part of pool of workers. According to a survey by this writer, at least 34 per cent of the rural households of Kathmandu have at least one member in jagir.

Jyala-daii labour on a daily wage basis is another form of work available to villagers. This also includes agricultural work. Until recently, the bulk of the building construction labour for the cities was drawn from the surrounding villages. Newars mostly worked as artisans and skilled labourers (dakarmi masons, sikarmi carpenters, nakarmi blacksmiths while Tamangs from more distant villages took up a variety of unskilled work in construction, as did many persons of the occupational castes such as damai, kami and sarki. Except among Tamangs, the majority of women working for wages were hired as farm hands. Peasant labour was what helped construct not only the historical sites of the Valley, but also the Shah and Rana palaces, government buildings, roads, schools, hospitals and private homes — right up to modern times.

Trade (byapar), mostly in the form of small retailing businesses and tea shops, is the third most common source of income for Valley villagers. In a survey of over 600 households by this writer, 23 per cent had at least one member engaged in byapar. Newars are more likely than other groups to engage in byapar, although there are parbatey traders in non-Newar villages.

Production of cottage items for home and market is widespread, typically among Newar, Tamang and the occupational castes. Some specialised products of the Valley include the pottery of Thimi, cloth of Lubhu and Kirtipur and straw mats (sukkuf) of Sanagaon. However, home cloth production recently suffered severe setbacks due to the price-hike in Indian yarn coupled with the declining cost of machine-made Chinese cloth, both induced in part by changes in Government policies. Recently, many rural Kathmandu women have taken to carding and spinning wool on contract for rug producers of the Valley, In the past two decades, the villagers have also taken up non-traditional activities tike poultry farming, modern dairy ing andcommercial production of vegetable seeds.

All rural production is affected by changing city demands and the supply of modern raw materials as well as by competition from industry, both domestic and international. The occupational castes like metal workers, cobblers, tailors and cloth dyers, have virtually lost their rural clientele to mass-produced substitutes. Traditional V a]ley specialties like mustard oil from Khokana and cane sugar extract (chaku) from Tokha are no longer produced on the scale of just 50 years ago.

A significant amount of de-industriali sation has thus occurred in the rural areas, which can no longer produce in the same volume, much less improve upon, the commodities they once supplied the urban population. In their place, carpel and consumer goods factories (soap, toothpaste, carbonated beverages,convenience foods) and countless brick kilns have mushroomed and spread out over the fertile fields of Kathmandu Valley.

If the land tenure system of Nepal as a whole is problematic, in the case of the Valley it can only be termed as disastrous, Atthe tumof the century, much of the Valley land was carved up between birta and jagir owners (feudal grantees) who collected rent from a subject peasantry. The remaining area was cultivated on the basis of raikar tenure, with the State acting as the direct landlord. As theright to collect rentwas asaleable commodity, it was common for Valley merchants to purchase these from the original feudal grantees. Large areas came to be controlled by non-resident investors under this system. A significant portion of the cultivated area was also assigned to religious trusts (guthis), with the tenants paying a fixed annual rent called hil.

As a result of this legacy of feudal land lenure, tenancy has been widespread-Eventoday, 47per cent of the rural households rent some or all of the land they cultivate, while 13 per cent of the households do not own any land of their own. In many villages of rural Kathmandu, non-resident landlords own the major share of the prime rice lands. A "big" farmer is one who owns more than 50 ropanis (2.6 ha).

The Valley lands yield two crops a year, usually rice and wheat. The best rice lands can produce up to 12 mKrw (588kg) of unhusked rice per ropani. Usually, though, yields are between five and 10 minis. On the best lands, a tenant pays up to 22 pat his (50 kg) of unhusked rice per year to the landlord.

Kathmandu Valley sees the highest use of chemical fertiliser in the country. Commercial vegetable farming is widespread, and is the Valley´s chief cash crop. Only a select groupof are as, however, account for the bulk of the Valley´s commercial vegetable supply, notably Thimi, Nagades, Imadol and Kirtipur. Jyapus, in particular, are exceptional horticulturists and the Valley´s impressive fresh vegetable output owes much to their painstaking labour. A recurring problem that farmers face is the shortage and rising cost of chemical fertilisers. Also, the State has not been able to devise agricultural programmes with the Valley specifically in mind.

The primary aim of most Valley farmers has been to try to produce sufficient grain for the family´s annual needs. Even so, 68 per cent of the households have to buy rice in the market. A family of six needs about 10 ropanis of decent quality land to live securely on farm output, and there is simply not enough land to make this possible. Besides, whatever acreage is available is distributed unevenly. In  consequence,, there are few full time farming households left in the Valley; most rural males work part- or full-time outside agriculture. This had led lo increased agricultural burden for women and increased dejiendence on hired labour.


Cities do produce some benefits for their outlying areas, and in some respects the villagers of the Valley lead better lives today than they did three decades ago. Many rural areas now have access to roads, transport, electricity, schools and health facilities. On the whole, however, the relationship of the Valley´s major towns to the periphery can only be described as predatory.

Walking down the extremely dirty alleys of many agro-towns, or inside the unlit, smoke-filled thatched huts of Valley peasants, it is difficult to visualise that these villagers live next door to the Himalayan region´s most metropolitan, affluent and populated city. The quality of life in some of the agro-towns like Khokana and Tokha can only be described as appalling.

Both the young and the old in the villages are confronted by a metropolis that is expanding, fast-paced, expensive and culturally and economically inaccessible. The villagers have had to contend with the city´s inflationary economy without significant increase in their own income. There are items to consume but fewer resources with which to buy them. While this is a nationwide problem, its scale and effect are especially heightened in rural Kathmandu because of the proximity to the city lights.

Most villagers want to adopt at least some of the ways of the city — electronic gadgets, modern clothes, education, new foods, furniture, and new housing styles. These habits cannot be supported by farming atone. There are only two things that the kanth possesses that have cash value — land and labour. Labour has been marketed for generations, which leaves only land. Among a certain section of the rural population, therefore, the sale of land represents the only way to shore up the household economy, both in dealing with inflation as well as in obtaining cash liquidity to buy in the city shops. Those who do not own much land have to either "sell out" or continue with subsistence fanning, supplemented by low-paying off-farm work. In either case, the prospects for steady increase in living standards are not good.

One thing is certain: as more Valley lands are sold to non-farmers, there will be a progressively larger pool of poor, landless, under¬employed, under-educated, ex-farmers and their families. These families will be in great need of stable sources of cash income. The quicker the authorities become aware of this looming problem the better they will be able to plan for the economic rehabilitation of displaced peasants.


The urbanisation process of the Valley has neither sought the participation of the .villagers it is displacing nor provided them with long-term benefits. Villagers have always been regarded as •we large pool of cheap labour, and their farm-lands, one large pool of real estate for expansion.

The national dream since the late 1950s, and, indeed, the measure of social success, has been to own a house in the Valley. Every time there is aneconomic windfall for a community in Nepal, its first act is to purchase real-estate in Kathmandu. Successful, educated and ambitious migrants have always been on the lookout for a plot, large or small, here. Marwaris, ex-Gurkha soldiers, and the successful business-people from Manang are only the most recent groups of property-buyers. As the country becomes more physically integrated and with development remaining Kathmandu-centric, it is not clear how successive generations of migrants are going to be able toown homes in the Valley. Kathmandu will continue to act as a national magnet, but there are limits to its physical growth.

Why is there land for sale at all? First, the sale of land has become a necessary evil for farmers caught in the city-driven inflationary spiral. Second, and equally important, sincemuch of the Valley lands are owned by non-cultivator landlords {taking), the real-estate value of land clearly outweighs the rent value paid by the tenants (mohi).

Thousands of tenants have been pauperised through the conversion of rural farms into real estate. Landlords are not beneath using nefarious tactics to evict tenants in order to realise the real-estate value of the land. By law, tenants must receive 25 per cent of the price of the land, but in practice they often receive little or nothing.

The incredibly rapid rate of land sales currently ongoing in the gaon bikas saniitis of Kathmandu Valley reflects the economic helplessness of the villagers. Poverty, and a pre-existing inequality in land-ownership, has meant that villagers do not have the deciding voice. Much of the proceeds from land transactions accrue to selected village elites and middlemen rather than to the petty-owners and to tenants. The price of real estate mighl be astronomical, but in many cases the tenants and owner-cultivators get only a fraction of the sale price. Continuing poverty in the villages is subsidising real-estate costs to urban dwellers.


Given the inability of the economically weakened villages to fight back, the full urbanisation of Kalhmandu Valley is inevitable. Things might have been different had the rural areas of the Valley had a bigger share of development funds, which would have ted to more services and facilities. Had the process  of the Valley´s development been more under the control of the rural residents, there might have been a possibility of the Valley hamlets and agro-towns evolving into larger an d more viable i nter-connected towns and cities themselves. At the moment, on their own, the villagers have no capacity to become anything other than villagers; they collectively await the Midas touch of the city.

Instead of trying to energise the rural settlements, just the opposite has happened.Take the case of Kirtipur. This hilltop town south-east of Patan had a viable, developed and differentiated urban structure until it was strangulated by governmental machinations. Kirtipur, a single city, was sub-divided into four panchayats (Layaku, Chitu -Bihar, Paliphal, and Bahiri Gaon), just so that the total population of divided Kirtipur would remain under the 10,000 threshold that would have given it a metropolitan status. The same applies to several other dense urban and quasi-urban settlements in the Valley. By not defining these areas as "urban", politicians and planners have been able to ignore the responsibility of improving and upgrading the housing, basic utilities and other services.

Despite the Valley´s long tradition of having dispersed agro-urban settlements, community leaders and planners must ask themselves why the State has never initiated systematic plans to revitalise and restore these native urban forms. One thing is certain: the issue has never purely been one of lack of funds.

In order to provide new dynamism to the rural areas, the importance of re-classifying large agro-towns as ´cities´ and investing in the infrastructure of rural Kathmandu must be emphasised. Only with renewed prosperity in the villages through an expansion of local employment, suitable land reform, and genuine local self government will some form of contra lied growth continue. If today´s unchecked and unfair takeover of rural land continues, Kathmandu Valley will undoubtedly become the most polluted, unsightly, and economically and environmentally unstable pockets of urban living in the entire Himalayan region. BUDDHIST PILGRIMAGE
Perhaps the urban residents of Kathmandu, in their cosmopolitan and west ward-looking straitjacket, would be more willing to preserve some of what they still have if they stopped and considered the sanctity that permeates their Valley´s past and present, its soil, rocks and rivers. While most educated Nepalis are conversant with Kalhmandu Valley´s artistic heritage, the legacy of the Lichhavi and Mai I a periods, they have yet to fully comprehend that the Valley is valued as a spiritual centre by believers across the Himalayan region.

There is ample scriptural reference to show that the Valley occupies an aII-important place in the traditions and myths of Mahay ana Buddhist culture, which encompasses Tibet and the high Bhotia valleys from Ladakh eastwards through Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Lumbini was where the Sakyamuni Buddha was born, and the sites associated with his life are scattered around Bihar. But numerous "intermediary Buddhas" have links to the Valley, including the most-revered Padma Sambhava.

Known to the Faithful as Guru Rimpoche, Padma Sambhava was responsible for establishing the dharma in Tibet during the 7th century A.D. When the sage first journeyed to Tibet, he is said to have passed through Kathmandu. On subsequent visits, we are told. meditated in many caves in and around the Valley. A cave at Pharping in the Valley´s south is considered especially im-portant a temple was recently constructed at this site by Jagdrol Rim-poche.

The Baudha stupa, once far removed from the Valley towns, but now swallowed by the city´s expansion, is among the holiest shrines of Tibetan Buddhists. Mostof the important lineage holders of the Buddhist faith have either a monument or a monastcy built within the spiritual sphere of the stupa. Dubjob Rimpoche, the principle lineage holder of the Nyingma-pa tradition lies in state in his monastery near the stupa.

Most residents of Kathmandu would not know it, but every year thousands of pilgrims from Sikkim, Bhutan and Ladakh visit the Valley every year to pray at Baudha and other revered holy sites both large and small. aWhether the Kathmandu residents recognise it or not, therefore, the wide expanse of then-Valley plays an important part in die spiritual cosmos of the Tibetan Buddhists of the entire Himalayan region. That is one more reason not to let the Valley die.

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