The traffic is snarled on the bridge linking Kathmandu and Patan, but commuters stuck in buses and motorcycles are oblivious to the settlements along the banks of the fetid Bagmati.
In this netherworld of homes, stores and workshops, daily life goes on in a parallel universe where everything is transient and the future hangs in the balance. What brought the estimated 50,000 inhabitants of Kathmandu's slums here over the last two decades is a saga of political parties padding their vote banks, and occupying urban real estate in which rural migrants have been used as pawns.
The municipality and government which are already demolishing large parts of Kathmandu to widen existing roads are now training their sights on clearing illegal settlements along the Bagmati, Bishnumati, Manahara and nearly 30 other areas in the Valley where there are 2,763 households. The number of squatter settlements has grown from 17 in 1985 to 63 today.
There had been half-hearted attempts before, but this time top leaders of the UCPN (M), UML, NC and the Madhesi Front met last month in Gorkarna to evict squatters along the Bagmati River. The Patan Appellate Court issued an interim order not to implement the plan, and the evictions have been stalled for now.
Not all the squatters are homeless (see box). Some have property in the districts and used political connections to have a toe-hold in Kathmandu. Land prices are so high that speculators worked with politicians to settle people so political parties got vote banks, and they got prime real estate.
The government tried to work out a procedure to identify real homeless settlers last year, but it is stuck at the Ministry of Physical Planning. The government even earmarked Rs 150 million last year for resettlement, but the squatters now have such political clout that no party will dare touch them.
Meanwhile, the slums have grown into townships. Shankhamul, Ramhiti Boudha, Chadani Tole, Golfutar and Khadipakha have rows of buildings made of cement blocks with electricity and water supply. The municipality has given each household a house number and residents like Pawan Gurung of Sankhamul even have receipts to prove they have been paying property tax.
"It was us who provided the numbers for the Maoist party for its show of strength in political rallies," says Dipak Rai, who leads the Struggle Committee of Squatters, "and now the same party is trying to get rid of us."
The Maoists, it turns out, were just following in the footsteps of the UML which perfected vote-bank resettlement in Kathmandu into a fine art. There are documents to prove that as the mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, Keshav Sthapit of the UML leased land to squatters in 2002 for 20 years under an agreement with the Society for the Preservation of Shelter and Habitation in Nepal, Mahila Ekata Samaj and Lumanti Support Group for Shelter.
When asked to clarify, Sthapit told us he never signed any 20-year lease agreements: "I did provide them with house numbers and identification cards for family members, but that doesn't entitle them to ownership of the land."
However, Nandu Raj Acharya of the high-powered committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilisation says the agreement is not legally binding as it goes against a Supreme Court verdict on public interest litigation filed in 2001 seeking the removal of occupants along the Bagmati floodplain.
But by now the settlers are so organised that the UN Park could not even map the area in Sankhamul because of local opposition. The Road Department had to move its bridge construction site by 150m upstream at Buddhanagar after squatters threatened staff.
Hukum Bahadur Lama says he had been living below the bridge for the past 20 years, and has now moved to his own house and handed over his hut to a relative. "We have been living here long before the UN Park acquired the land," said Lama, who is also president of the self-styled Nepal Sukumbasi Party.
The committee is determined to clear a 20m strip on either side of the Bagmati River to implement its pending sewage management project. But for now illegal settlers in core areas of the city are just too powerful to evict, even for the influential committee.
Says Mahesh Bahadur Basnet who heads the committee: "Providing an alternative is not our responsibility, we have to move the people out."
With her ailing police husband and two toddlers, Padam Kumari first moved to Shankhamul in 1974 when they were thrown out of their rented room after they couldn't pay the rent.
"We were living in rented space people kicked us around, now we have a place of our own and they are still kicking us around," she says.
Padam Kumari first put a small shack and a shop selling food stuffs and home-made alcohol. When her husband died, she worked as a domestic help and brought up her children. "Now that we are finally able to take care of ourselves, the government wants to throw us out," she says.
The hut she built 37 years ago has now been replaced by a one-storey building, the problem is that the land is designated as UN Park.
Keshav Rai was a proxy NC candidate during the 1994 parliamentary election from Khotang district. The party's official candidate had him withdraw his candidacy in exchange for a piece of land in Kathmandu.
He has property in Khotang but he moved to Kathmandu. To avoid paying rent Rai and 60 others from Khotang and other districts as well decided to settle in Shantinagar and named their neighbourhood Dirghayu Tole 2001. Now, the government says he is a squatter and wants to evict them. Rai says: "I am not leaving until the government gives us alternative housing."
Vote banks on river banks