After the Earthquakes

A Dalit Community’s Quest for Shelter in the City

Bhangal: A Brief History

Dalit, meaning oppressed, is a community of different caste groups that continues to be considered ‘untouchable’ under the hierarchical Hindu caste system in most parts of South Asia — even if ‘untouchability’ has long been abolished. Historically, the Dalits are heavily under-represented within the government, non-government and private sectors, and majority are devoid of access to material resources — land and land-based resources that would allow to have a livable condition on an everyday basis, for example. 44 % of Dalit population in the Terai region, Nepal’s low lying belt bordering India, are absolutely landless. This figure reads grimly against this statistics: 20 percent of Nepal’s total population — little over 28 million — are Dalits, while they constitute 5% of the global population. Located in the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, Bhangal is a three decades old settlement of one such Dalit community — landless, lacking recognition as right-bearing full citizens and with no access to formal employment in the public or private sectors. There are twelve Dalit families in Bhangal. Most men in the families are day time workers in nearby stores, a shoe store or a handicraft shop, while there are few who run small-scale businesses, like a motorcycle workshop or a metal-welding shop. Some women are daytime laborers in an adjoining vegetable farmland, few work in the construction sector as unskilled laborers, while most stay home doing household chores, including taking care of their children. There are about ten school-going children and about the same number of teenagers who are just completing high school, some of whom are hoping for life as a full-time employee at some place or the other in the city.

Historically marginalized by the state and socially oppressed, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, following the earthquake of 2015 Spring, has put the Dalit households of Bhangal at the center of rebuilding their community. This rebuilding initiative, under the auspices of the municipal government, has created aspirational grounds for the Dalit families that such a rebuilding might pave them the way to make legal claims for shelter in the city.

Houses in Bhangal that were destroyed by the 2015 earthquakes

The spring earthquakes of 2015 in Nepal claimed 8,790 lives and destroyed 498,852 houses. In Kathmandu, fourteen landless communities were destroyed and displaced. Bhangal is one such community — landless because they do not privately own the land they inhabit; it is a public land. The earthquakes left the land in Bhangal prone to landslides, and hence uninhabitable. As a result, the residents of Bhangal had to relocate to a privately owned land nearby. This temporary relocation was made possible after few propertied local residents in the neighborhood, along with members of the ‘Ward Citizen Forum’, a quasi-government body formed to fill the gap left behind by the dissolution in 2002 of locally elected government units, organized to convince the owner of the vacant land to allow the Dalit families to inhabit the land as their temporary refuge. The households have been living there for over a year now. What follows next is an account of an unprecedented call that the municipal government made in providing legitimate grounds for the Dalit families to rebuild their settlement.

Bhangal residents currently reside on this land, temporarily, after seeking approval from the landowner

Citizenship and Landlessness in Nepal

In response to an approach that Ward Citizen Forum made to the municipal government for providing shelter to Bhangal residents, the municipal government made an unprecedented call of allowing the residents to rebuild their shelters. The call was unprecedented when judged against the tenuous and convoluted nexus that citizenship in Nepal has with land — landownership or landlessness.

Up until 2006, the Citizenship Act demanded landownership as a necessary requirement for citizenship. Even though the provision requiring landownership was deleted from the Act reformed in 2006 and the Interim Constitution passed in 2008, and more recently, the new Constitution promulgated in November, 2015, there continues to be a demand for proof of landownership as a necessary condition for obtaining citizenship owing largely to the archaic mindset of the state bureaucracy that continues to equate citizenship with property ownership. In other words, private property ownership continues to dictate one’s ability to access and exercise one’s fundamental rights, including the right to shelter. Seen in this light, the Dalit families of Bhangal are doubly marginalized because on top of everyday cultural and social exclusion that they experience, they are also landless like nearly 40% of Dalit families in Nepal who are landless. Therefore, while the 2015 earthquake instilled the spirit of humanitarianism in the state, granting the rebuilding of Bhangal, it was still an unprecedented call from the municipal government; radical because the Dalit community were allowed to build shelter on land that they did not own and despite a few not having citizenship status owing to landlessness. Despite the approval to rebuild, there remained a huge obstacle. The extent of support that the Dalit families of Bhangal received from the municipal government was this: the municipality would bulldoze and level the uneven land in Bhangal for the reconstruction of twelve houses to take place.

Bhangal, after the municipality bulldozed and leveled for rebuilding the Dalit settlement

After leveling and demarcating the land for the Dalit families, the families would be on their own. Meaning, the municipal government refrained from financially supporting the rebuilding, therefore, the families would have to pool all the financial resources on their own, including setting up a planning procedure necessary to rebuild: making decision abut the house type, building materials to be used, and there was also a building contractor to find. So, while the humanitarian gesture from the government was critical in offering hope for shelter to the Dalit families, the lack of financial resources to even build the foundation for the shelter left the residents helpless.

Solidarity in Action

Society for Preservation of Shelter and Habitat — Nepal’ (SPOSH), also known as Basobas (meaning ‘shelter’), is an organization, which is really a federated network of landless communities spread across forty four districts in Nepal. Basobas advocates for housing and land rights for the landless in Nepal. While distributing relief to the landless communities affected by the 2015 earthquake, Basobas came to know about the challenges facing Bhangal, which led them to take the initiative for setting up a rebuilding plan in motion. Consequently, Basobas organized a series of meetings with the Dalit families and the Ward Citizen Forum essentially to be sketch a clear vision about what kind of shelter was desired and whether necessary resources, labor and financial, could be assembled to rebuild.

After the first five or six meetings over the period of a month and a half, a Shelter Reconstruction Committee was formed. The 9-membered committee currently includes two representatives of the Ward Citizen Forum, five representatives from the Dalit community, including two women, and two members from Basobas.

Meetings organized by the Shelter Committee, such as the ones pictured here, took place on a weekly basis over the course of three months. The idea was to actively engage almost every Dalit family in drawing out a concrete rebuilding plan

Each person attending the weekly meetings brought to the table his or her own commitment. For example, one representative of the Ward Citizen Forum promised to work with the municipality to produce a cadastral map of the land to aid with the land zoning process. Zoning was necessary to decide which family would be located at what area of the land allocated for rebuilding. Members of Basobas would work with their colleagues to set up a plan for raising funds. The Dalit members in the committee, who represented the Dalit community, were responsible for exploring the ‘housing market’ to identify small-scale local housing contractors.

Monsoon regularly caused dents like this that would postpone the rebuilding plans

The initial plan, that some forwarded, to build ecologically sustainable houses, to be constructed through locally source-able materials such as mud and bamboo, was later dropped. There were two factors that caused the drop: time and weather. Building mud houses would require a substantial amount of time. Unlike say cement or brick, for mud houses, there is is a short supply of both labor and building materials in the city. The commodity chain is not established in same the way that it is for bricks and cement. As it is, the landless Dalit families are on borrowed time beholden to the municipality’s humanitarian concern. However, such concerns tend to erode as events such as the earthquake become a distant memory and immediate concern elicited by a humane response could, over time, be replaced with apathy. The Dalit families are not able to afford such a proposition. In addition, if ecological shelters were to be built, by the time the plan would be ready to hit the ground running, monsoon would just be round the corner. And building a mud house during monsoon would already add to the complication.

A house drawn by a Dalit family member that became the basis for designing the shelter for rebuilding
Land map of Bhangal issued by the municipality with 12 separate land plots allocated for each of the 12 families
Based on the land map, a local resident of Bhangal hand-draws a map on the land to begin the land planning process
A resident mulls over at the pamphlet of ‘Sahara House of Modern Pvt. Ltd’ — the building company the community selected for rebuilding shelter

The series of meetings arrived at a plan for action after over three months of deliberation. On the housing contractor, the residents of Bhangal decided to work with a contractor identified through one of the families’ personal network. A design was picked unanimously.

Based on the design and building materials, including labor costs, total rebuilding cost was calculated. The Dalit community decided to contribute 20% of the total cost in cash in addition to providing manual labor. Basobas took up the mantle of raising the remaining funds in collaboration with friends and colleagues, such as researchers and housing activists, who have worked with Basobas for over nearly a decade.

Residents building an embankment to prevent potential erosion
Damp-Proof Construction — Laying out the foundation

Local propertied residents and civil society leaders continue to provide the required social and civil service to support the rebuilding of Bhangal. The local families, meanwhile, provide their labor on a daily basis towards the rebuilding process. Through their networks and support base, Basobas continue to raise funds.

Daily morning vigil of the construction site
The pursuit of aspiration

Conditions of Possibility

Brick by brick, the ongoing rebuilding in Bhangal is providing the condition of possibility for the Dalit community to realistically aspire for life as dignified residents in the city with full citizenship rights. While the aspiration is rooted in the ongoing rebuilding, it also points in the direction of two legal provisions enshrined in the national documents. First, the Nepal Gazette, published by the Government of Nepal for the earthquake victims, postulates that the government guarantees landownership for victims who are landless. Second, in the Constitution of Nepal 2015, in the chapter on ‘Fundamental Rights and Duties’, Clause 5 of Article 40 mandates that ‘the State shall have to make legal provision to provide land to landless Dalits for one time’. Aided by the municipal government and a network of solidarity on the ground, the Dalit families of Bhangal have laid the foundation for this one time to make legitimate claims to the rights stipulated in the national documents.

Constructing the right to shelter in the city