The people of Khokana have had enough of a state that doesn’t value their way of life
For a long time in Nepal’s history, all roads led to Kathmandu. Two democratic movements, a decade-long war, and many political upheavals later, all roads still lead to Kathmandu. But the locals of Khokana, a sleepy farming town 10km south of the Ring Road, are asking if it still has to be so. Do the new highways and transmission lines have to go through their sacred sites?
Khokana is famous for its mustard presses, and used to supply the oil to much of the Valley. The town used to be a living heritage museum until the 2015 earthquake destroyed many of its houses and temples. Now, the town faces a threat even bigger than earthquakes: bulldozers.
Five future infrastructure projects will affect Khokana, which sits right on the planned alignments for the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track Highway, the Outer Ring Road, the Bagmati Corridor project, Patan’s satellite city and the Kulekhani 132kVA high tension line. Khokana stands to lose almost 60% of its fertile farms and much of its heritage (see map).
“Our land is us and we are our land,” says Hem Ratna Shakya, a Khokana activist. “People here have a physical, spiritual, social, cultural and economic connection with the land. We have no identity without it.”
The four-lane 76km Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway project will follow the Bagmati River from the Valley to a proposed new international airport in Nijgadh. Some 6km of the highway will slice through terrace farms and ritual routes of the town, erasing important cultural heritage sites.
The Fast Track will start at Sikali and go through Pingah, the funeral area, Ku Dey, Jugunti, Machaga Bagar, Chankutirtha — all important parts of Khokana’s cultural circuit on the route to the next town of Bungamati.
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In Sano Khokana where the expressway is supposed to start, Asha Maharjan will lose all his property. The fertile soil here is an important part of his family’s history and he remembers ploughing it with his parents when he was young. His eight-member family still relies on harvests for their food and income.
“Maybe they can re-route it through non-arable land,” Maharjan says hopefully. “It will save us from being homeless.”
Up the road from his house, the project will take up a portion of Sikalichaur, where the annual Sikali Jatra is celebrated. In October, when the country celebrates Dasain, locals in Khokana mark Sikali Jatra — a five-day festival with masked dances for Goddess Rudrayani and other deities.
“The Jatra follows a prescribed circuit and there is a specific way to perform it. If the expressway cuts through it, the place of the masked dances will be lost,” says Astendra Maharjan, another local activist. “We value our heritage, and that is not just the physical structure but the festivals and rituals as well.”
Noted historian Satya Mohan Joshi agrees: “We cannot avoid development, but at the same time we cannot hurt the sentiments of the local people,” says Joshi. “Their grievances must be addressed and a middle path must be found before the development can commence.”
For generations, Gyan Bhagat Maharjan’s family has been a member of the Jatra Ta Guthi, one of the three community groups responsible for organizing the Sikali festival, which makes the food for the gods and devotees. The guthi owns a plot of land where the annual feasts take place.
“Without the land we won’t be able to continue with any of the rituals,” says Gyan Bhagat, “and the road will cause us to lose all our land. Our culture, our traditions will die.” The community will also lose the temple of its ancestral deity, Pingha, and the expressway will take away the funeral area from where music is played during cremations.
Ku Dey is where the people of Khokana believe their ancestors first established the settlement—before moving up the ridge to its present location, says Asojh Maharjan of Lumbini Buddhist University: “It is an important archaeological site, 3,000 years old, which predates Khokana.”
At Jugunti, the Jugi community of Newars will lose the cemetery where they have been burying their ancestors for generations. At Chankhu Tirtha, the expressway will go through the land where the final rites of the priests of Rato Machindranath are performed.
Conservationists say the new infrastructure can easily be realigned to the west bank of the Bagmati without much extra cost, which would preserve heritage sites.
Says Asojh: “We are not against development, but they are forcing projects on us that threaten our way of life.”
Not the first time
When no one listened to their grievances, and they were on the verge of losing their farms and most important heritage sites, the people of Khokana finally took to the streets.
Last month, they joined others protesting loss of property to road-widening at a march from the Mandala to Parliament. The peaceful protest turned violent as police deployed its newly-acquired water cannon carrier and tear gas. Khokana finally hit the national headlines.
The people of Khokana had voiced concern about their land being taken away for decades. First, it was the Army that nationalised 70 hectares of their farmlands to conduct paradropping exercises. The Army still retains a small part of it, and the rest was sold off to private housing. Khokana farmers got nothing.
Then the government nationalised another 100 hectares for a leprosy hospital, a training facility for the Armed Police Force and a prison. None of the land was used for the intended purpose and was sold off to private builders.
Nati Kaji Maharjan, 75, had to give up his land for the prison that was never built. Now, it will be the Tarai Expressway that will rob him of the remaining land. “We are farmers. We depend on the land, without it how are we to eat?” asks Maharjan. “How can they take our land and sell it to someone else?”
Following widespread protests, the government has said it may re-route the expressway, but having been deceived so often, Khokana residents remain wary.
Asks activist Asojh Maharjan: “How much more land should we give to them before they are satisfied?”