Thinking locally, acting locally

Stone quarry in Lalitpur's Tikabhairav. All photos: SAGAR BUDHATHOKI

Konjyosom Rural Municpality is just 30km south of the Ring Road, but it might as well be the remotest village in the mountains of far-western Nepal.

Schools are dilapidated, the health post has no staff. Despite its proximity to the capital, Southern Lalitpur’s development indicators are much lower than the national average.

Jets fly overhead one after another on their final approach into Kathmandu airport, but here on the ground the road disappears in a pall of dust. In the rainy season the road is so muddy it is safer just to walk. 

“We have a choice of breathing dust or being knee-deep in mud, it takes nearly four hours to reach the city,” says resident Pitambar Humagain, pointing out into the haze in the general direction of Kathmandu.

There is just one health post, but it has no doctor and no equipment. It has no patients either — they have to be carried to Patan Hospital for even minor ailments. Schools are in such a poor state that parents have migrated to the city so their children get a proper education. 

The villages are emptying, more than 150 families from just Sankhu village have moved out in recent years, leaving locked up houses and fallow terrace fields.

“Life is so difficult, there are no jobs and we are not educated, so families are migrating out because they do not want their children to suffer the same fate,” says Manju Ghimire, weeding her maize patch.

Fifteen years ago, the only school in the village of Silinge had 65 students in a primary class. Now, there are barely 30 elementary school students and only two teachers. 

Read also: Periphery within the periphery in Nepal, Kunda Dixit

“There is no future for the children here,” adds Silinge local Suresh Tamang “Elected officials have not shown any interest in the past five years to improve education and health facilities.”

Indeed, despite local elections being less than a month away, Konjyosom’s villagers do not have much hope that it will change anything. In fact the candidates for mayor and chairs are in the city, and are not even campaigning in their constituencies.

Since the 2017 election, the municipal council has built just one trail bridge, and the budget allocated to blacktop 14 km from Ikudol to Dahchok has vanished without trace. 

Guruprasad Gautam of Bhatte Danda shakes his head in disgust: “Candidates buy their election tickets from the party leadership, and when elected they bulldoze the whole village to the ground.”

Indeed, the rural municipalities of southern Lalitpur have become notorious for elected businessmen who have awarded themselves quarry and sand-mining contracts, allowed mountains to be carved for housing colonies and built random roads that have scarred the slopes.

Rampant ‘plotting’ has destroyed the landscape of scenic Lele Valley and Godavari. Community forests have been privatised under the guise of ‘road expansion’. All this has disturbed drainage on the slopes, and springs have gone dry.

Read also: Nepal struggles to balance nature and industry, Ramesh Kumar

Illegal quarries in Godavari have increased the danger of landslides and worsened air quality. Locals whisper about the ‘sand mafia’ working in collusion with local officials.

“Local dons have so much influence they now have got permission to mine river boulders and their crushers have made our community unliveable,” complains Subhash Bista, holding a cloth to his face. “At this rate, southern Lalitpur will be buried in landslides.”

It is not just the rural outskirts of Lalitpur that have suffered in the past five years. The historic city of Patan itself is over-run with unplanned construction. 

Read also: Nepal’s local election gives power back to people, Rabin Giri

Gone are the charms of the quaint alleys, and multi-story concrete buildings now block the sky. Some of Patan’s ancient stone spouts and monuments destroyed in the earthquake have been restored, but many ponds have been built over.

“There are no public parks for children, no open spaces and greenery at all,” says Kupondole resident Pradip Baidya. “There is only dust and traffic.” 

Lalitpur district has one metropolis, two municipalities and three rural municipalities, and they all share common concerns which should have been addressed by local governments in the past five years. 

Still, incumbent mayors, chairs and council members want to run for office again. One of them is Lalitpur Metropolis mayor Chiribabu Maharjan of the Nepali Congress, who promises to continue the work he started to build a ‘bicycle city’ and a ‘smart eco-friendly metropolis’. 

“We have made progress in the last five years, but there is still a lot to be done,” he admits.

Read also: Local government by the people, for the people, of the people, Ramesh Kumar

Deputy mayor Geeta Satyal wants Maharjan’s post and is running for mayor. She says, “My five-year term as the deputy has given me the necessary experience and confidence to run for mayor.”

Meanwhile, UML has already selected district central committee members Harikrishna Vyanjankar and Manjari Shrestha as mayoral and deputy mayoral candidates for Lalitpur.

In Bagmati Rural Municipality, chair Bir Bahadur Lopchan is planning to run for the post again. But his deputy Ranjana Ghimire and ward-chair Bishnu Timilsina are also running for the mayor post.

Mayor Rameswar Shrestha of Mahalaxmi Municipality boasts that he has fulfilled most of his 2017 campaign promises and spent 80% of his constituency’s budget on infrastructure. He is contesting again, but so are Ram Chandra Dahal and Kamala Tamang of the neighbouring Mahankal rural Municipality.

As in other parts of Nepal, in Lalitpur too many elected officials are competing against members of their own parties as well as from the opposition. The list of hopefuls include runners-up of the 2017 state-assembly, joint secretaries and central committee members of local party chapters, as well as contractors, educators, and members of local financial institutions.

Time is running out for elections on 13 May, and political parties are now unveiling their election strategies. The UML has said it will focus on delivery of health, education, employment, agriculture and infrastructure.

Read also: Power to the periphery, Sonia Awale

The Maoist Centre has a similar platform, prioritising physical infrastructure, education and health. For Lalitpur, the Nepali Congress is set to focus on cultural and heritage preservation, traffic management and the environment. 

Even as many voters have become disillusioned with local government, many also want their concerns taken seriously this time. Keshav KC of Thecho wants his elected officials to stop illegal mining and improve roads that have been in a dilapidated condition for years.  

Shiva Shrestha of Tikathali is concerned about air and water pollution, and wants a municipality head to solve those.  Rajesh Darlami of Bhatte Danda village wants the chronic lack of irrigation and fertiliser facilities as well as an efficient market delivery system of fresh produce. 

Pema Lama of Lakuri Bhanjyang expects his local leader to expand tourism in the area. “Better roads and other facilities to attract tourists would vastly benefit the local economy,” he says.

Prakash Raut of Lamatar sees the need to control rampant use of excavators to level slopes in his neighbourhood for new housing colonies. “If unchecked plotting does not stop, there will be nothing but houses here in a few years,” he adds.

Suraj Bajgain of Gotikhel wants elected candidates to improve health and education services so that people do not have to move to an expensive city, and live hand-to-mouth. 

Kishor Bista of Sunakothi believes that elected officials should be responsible for the preservation of local culture and heritage. “Our public spaces, community forests and heritage are disappearing. If we elected a representative who cared enough, we could preserve the beauty of this town for generations to come.”

Read more: Deputies drive development in rural Nepal, Laxmi Basnet

Adapted by Shristi Karki from the Nepali original in