DHARAN MUNICIPALITY’S LAND POOLING PROJECT
When financial interests collide with political interests, disputes arise and ruin development projects. The Sundarbasti Integrated Land Development Project of Dharan Municipality is a case in point. It shows how municipality’s plans and resources are affected by political interests. In 2005, local people and political parties gave the project a go-ahead. Now the local people want their land back. UCPN-Maoist and Nepali Congress objected to the construction of the bus terminal in the area. Years of efforts and resources are going down the drain as municipal employees, political parties, and users’ group members sling mud on one another over the project stalled on whether or not to build a bus park.
By SITA MADEMBA, in Dharan
Large plots of land lie barren in Sundarbasti, two kilometers south of Dharan’s old market. These are neither part of any grassland, nor of wasteland. Municipal authorities acquired these plots from 107 landowners of Ward No. 8 of Sundarbasti by promising them a modern residential area with open space, wide roads, sewerage, drinking water, community building, telephone and electricity in return. The plan included a modern bus terminal of Dharan to meet the needs of the road link to the highway in Itahari.
Dharan Municipality initiated the project after the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved of it on March 14, 2005 and after local users’ group gave it a go ahead. The municipality pooled land under the Sundarbasti Integrated Land Development Project in December 2005.
As delay, political wrangling and irregularity surrounded the project, the people began to nurse grudges. They are now saying that the land pooling was meant for the bus terminal, not for the Integrated Land Development Project.
Land pooling is the most suitable way of providing housing and management of land in urban areas, especially for small municipalities like Dharan, where resources are scarce, say experts.
The scheme consolidates scattered and irregular-shaped plots into a big area, develops urban amenities there, and returns smaller but uniform plots with higher value to the land owners. The idea is to develop a comfortable urban environment with updated cadastral land maps and records by enlisting public and private participation.
The Town Development Act 1988 provides the legal basis for land pooling projects. According to the act, the government approves a land pooling project at the request of landowners through local authorities and assists them on planning and implementation of the project in cooperation with the users’ committee composed of landowners, tenants, and local representatives and intellectuals.
Dharan Municipality also followed these steps in developing the project.
“Land pooling project is a partnership of the government, the private sector and the community members for urban land development. The scheme offers a number of benefits to the land owners,” municipal officials said.
As is usual elsewhere, a total of 400,000 square feet of land was acquired in Sundarbasti. The area is about 13 bigahs and 5 katthas, with 3645 square feet for each kattha and 20 katthas for a bigah.
Out of this, 30,000 square feet was meant for multipurpose use. The municipality considered building a modern bus terminal in the multipurpose area because this facility did not exist in Dharan so far.
But then, the project hit a snag causing an enormous loss to the municipality in terms of its efforts, time and paper work over the last five years. Financially, the cost was not much, as it had spent only Rs. 800,000.
The concept behind the project was that the cost of planning and providing infrastructure would be covered from the land itself to be contributed by each landowner. Finally, the owner would get back about 12- 30% smaller pieces of land with parks and open spaces.
Conflict of Interests
Years down the road, consumers take it otherwise. Sixty-eight year old Panchamaya Rai, who gave her legal rights of half of her land to construct the bus terminal, is now demanding her land back. An illiterate Rai saw economic prospects in a bus park near her house when she signed the document transferring the ownership of land to the Project. She now accuses municipal officials of grabbing her land.
“I knew that I had nothing left when I visited the land revenue office to sell my remaining land. They showed me papers with my signature. I had lost everything at this old age,” Rai said.
Family members of late Phulmaya Rai too share a similar story. Her daughter Bindu Rai came to know from the land revenue office, where she went to transfer her mother’s property to her name, that only some land was left for her: 15 out of more than 23 dhurs.
“My mother signed a document when the municipal officials asked her for some land for extension of road. She did not know anything about Sundarpur Basti Project,” said Bindu Rai.
Be these fabrications or real stories, the number of people with similar stories to share are increasing these days following rumors that the bus terminal will not be built there. Locals like Panchamaya, with small pieces of land, have formed an agitation group. Those who have larger areas of land in their possession, however, are supporting the project even without the bus terminal as its part.
Those who agreed on the project have already got their land ownership papers. Those who are opposed have rejected the documents demanding all their land back as before.
As the area is a stronghold of CPN-UML, other parties are blamed as tapping the opportunity to create a slogan to discredit its vote bank by provoking the locals with false information. “We know there is disinformation campaign against us,” said a local CPN-UML leader.
Local residents are protesting the project saying that there is no meaning in donating their land if the Central Bus Terminal plan, an integral part of Sundarbasti Integrated Land Development Project, is canceled even when the elected representatives were from the UML, which proposed it.
Dharan Municipality is considering an estimated Rs. 15.4 million for the bus terminal. This amount, however, is not included in any subheading of Sundarbasti Project.
In every scenario, the bus terminal row virtually jeopardises the future of the municipality’s first well-planned integrated land development project.
The issue where the bus terminal should be built divides Dharan’s political parties. UCPN-Maoist and Nepali Congress hold the view that the bus terminal should not be constructed where there already is a new settlement plan. “How can the municipality spend all its money in one place? If Sundarbasti gets the land pooling project, the bus terminal should go to other areas,” said Rajuman Shrestha secretary of Nepali Congress Dharan Municipality Committee.
After prolonged disputes, a committee formed under the Chairman of Town Development Board recommended three alternative sites for constructing the bus terminal: sports land of Dharan 16, Saptarangi Park of 17 and Sundarbasti of Dharan-8.
The committee said Saptarangi Park was the most appropriate site for the bus terminal in terms of future benefits.
This recommendation invited more controversy in Sundarbasti where people had bought land looking at its prospects after the construction of a bus park here.
Nepali Congress suggested Dharan 16, UCPN-Maoist proposed Saptarangi Park and CPN-UML proposed Sundarbasti as the appropriate place for construction of the bus park. The differences hit the municipal project hard.
“We agreed to support the project on grounds that we donate 36 percent of total land to construct the bus terminal. Later when the municipality tried to encroach our land between 44 and 54 percent even without the bus terminal, we objected to this,” Parta Bahadur Rai, a local resident and member of the users’ group, said. “If there is no bus terminal, nobody sees any reason to donate land.”
Local people are raising the issue of fake signatures and repetition of names of various persons giving the consent to the project.
Out of 80 landowners who sent their consent, 10 signatures were fake, according to the agitating committee, which has filed complaints with the municipality, political parties, the district court and the Commission for the Investigation of the Abuse of Authority. Fifty landowners registered their complaints with Dharan Municipality and called for investigation.
The opponents of the project found more points of criticism when they discovered that some of the plots allocated under the project were bought by the family members of employees of Dharan Municipality.
The news that the land pooled from the local community was distributed to families and relatives of municipal employees agitated the people further.
But, a project engineer said, “There is no malpractice here and any question of buying the plots being illegal as the buyers paid the money as demanded by the project.”
What’s wrong in it, then? The relatives of the municipal employees bought the land just a few months before the announcement of the project.
Opponents said they bought the land before 5 May, 2005 or the publication of the notice in Rajpatra Gazette.
Local users’ group member Gyan Bahadur Rai said the land had been under the non-transferable category since 2003. He said he came to know of this because a bank declined to issue loans against his land as collateral there. This is purely a corruption.
According to the documents of District Land Management Office, a dozens of family members of present employees of Dharan Municipality bought the lands. Similarly, some of the plots were bought by their relatives. Two dozen land brokers also bought the plots.
Municipal officials said they had nothing to do with the land purchase. “This is merely a propaganda device against us. Can our family members not buy property?” asked engineer Raju Pokharel.
A meeting convened on November 12, 2008, by Khadka Bahadur Chapagain, convenor of Sunderbasti Development Project and executive officer of Dharan Municipality, and attended by municipal employees and representatives of political parties, gave a clean chit to all the relatives of municipal officials saying that they bought the plots in accordance with the law.
The meeting unanimously decided not to take issue with the land purchased by the relatives and family members of the municipal officials since they bought the land before the announcement of the project.
Tara Subba, CPN-UML representative who took part in the meeting, said the landowners were victimized. “Construction of the bus terminal was not included in the plan to acquire land for development, but the owners were promised with a bus terminal during acquisition,” said Subba. “We have seen signatures of those who were in foreign lands during the signing of the document.”
Such projects need the support of 70 percent of the local population before they are started. When more than 50 per cent of signatures collected in support of the project were fake, questions do arise naturally.
Former deputy mayor and UCPN-Maoist leader Krishnanarayan Palikhe said, “This is abuse of authority and corruption.”
Engineer of Dharan Municipality and project manager Pokharel said this is a project designed for implementation through the participation of people and municipality. “For developing and planning the plots, the people need to contribute certain portions of their land,” said Pokharel.
Since political parties are yet to reach a consensus on where to construct the new bus terminal, this dispute continues to haunt the project. “We have never said in our project document that this is going to be a central bus terminal. The area is acquired for multipurpose construction site. We have shared this fact with the people.”
Until 2008, Dharan Municipality had spent Rs. 800,000 on the project. The project work completely stopped following opposition from the local people two years ago.
According to Town Development Act 1988, clause 12.1.1, the government can acquire pieces of land to integrate them to add facilities and services and the Town Development Committee can reimburse its investment by selling the developed plots of land and transferring the remaining land to the original landowners. According to clause 5.2 of the Town Planning Directives 2005, there is a provision to distribute the plots to marginal and excluded communities, with certain conditions.
“The municipality cheated us by saying that they will construct the bus terminal and they are saying to us now that they did not promise that. If there is no bus park, there is no question why we should give our land,” said treasurer of the Agitation Committee against the Fraud of Municipality, Gyan Bahadur Rai.
Out of 107 landowners, who agreed to donate land for the construction of the bus terminal, some fifty percent have already got back their land tenure certificates. Fifty houses are agitating with a demand to return their total land.
According to the project proposal of 2005, the local residents have to contribute 36 percent on an average of their land for development. They are now angry with the municipality because, they say, it made false promises.
“Municipality never said it would construct a new bus terminal in the land acquired for the Integrated Land Development Project,” said engineer Pokharel.
Sundarpur Basti Integrated Land Development Project has the legal possession of the pooled land, which, after plotting, is gradually being handed over to the original landowners.
How It Evolved
After looking at various sites in Dharan Municipality, a committee formed on June 19, 2004 under the convenorship of Rudra Bahadur Limbu, CPN-UML leader, chose Sundarpur Basti as the site for an Integrated Land Development Program. After a series of meetings and interactions with the consent of the local population, the committee requested Land Revenue Department to stop all the transactions of land till the project was completed.
Following the decision of the municipality, the project was approved on May 3, 2005, by the Ministry of Housing, Physical Planning and Works, and the notice was published in Rajpatra on September 12, 2005.
Dharan Municipality decided to implement the project under the technical assistance of Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Five years have already passed since and nothing has happened. To pacify the impatient public, CPN-UML has formed a three-member committee under the chairmanship of former acting mayor Harihar Pyara Shrestha to probe the issue. It is studying all events and information before taking any decision on it.
As urban centers grow in the country, Dharan Municipality decided to launch projects like Sundarbasti for planned development of the town. However, its very first effort landed in a controversy with political and financial interests clashing in the fore. Nobody knows what will happen of the project next, or of other projects in the future. A ringing question is: Who is responsible for the misuse of resources and efforts in aborted projects?
This is the third of nine investigative stories on politics of local bodies supported by The Asia Foundation. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of The Foundation or Founder
New Spotlight Magazine Read Sita Mademba’s story on Dharan Municipality: http://www.spotlightnepal.com/Others.aspx?ArticleID=323