Land conflicts in Nepal: the origin, present and prospects

-This article has been originally published by Sneha Pradhan in The Himalayan Times on October 8, 2017.

“No man but feels more of a man in the world if he have a bit of ground that he can call his own. However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep; and that is a very handsome property.” – Charles Dudley Warner, 1870


For centuries, ownership of land has been associated with wealth and power. Those who controlled land, controlled not only the produce but also the people dependent on it. The social stratification that emerged thus put land owners as elite rulers of society. In Nepal, this phenomenon can be traced back to when Prithvi Narayan Shah used land as a political tool to maintain authority by granting land ownership titles to his supporters. This feudal system saw a further exacerbated turn all through the Rana regime where highly corrupt structures such as Jimidari, Birta, Jagir, Kipat and Rakam systems flourished in favor of the aristocrats who exploited poor peasants. The Land Reform Act 1964, introduced during King Mahendra’s rule, put an end to such systems. However, corruption persisted in Panchayats and land seizing in name of the landless ensued. Years of building resentment to discriminatory, exploitative land practices – even following multiparty democracy – led to a decade long armed conflict where Maoists forcefully seized and redistributed land. Although signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord 2006 brought renewed commitments of proper scientific reform, progress has been limited and land remains a critical issue in the country.

Present Scenario

In the past three years, approximately 385,978 land cases clogged formal courts, land registration and reform offices. These cases which take years to resolve can be attributed to lack of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, weak land information and administrative systems, poor policy implementation and prejudiced social norms. From stressed scarce resources, unskilled officials, dwindling agricultural land to unfortunate natural disasters leading to thousands of displaced individuals; land problems are widespread. Tackling such sensitive issues is complicated; even more so, given the recent move to federalism. Some major land problems include:

Landlessness: The main conflict stems from the government refusing to accept informal tenure, and forcefully evicting squatters from public and forest land; destroying their houses in the process. Efforts to rehabilitate landless in the past has unnecessarily been convoluted through cheap vote propaganda and emergence of ‘fake’ landless; who through political ties received benefits intended for true landless. Corrupt political Landless Squatter Problem Resolution Commissions (LSPRCs) should remain dissolved, with local government – alongside local/international partners- taking responsibility of identifying genuinely landless and recording that data in a nationally integrated digital data base. This along with current adoption of land use rights instead of full land ownership rights should help curb fake and re-landless problems. Lastly, low cost housing alternatives should be explored through feasible private/public/donor partnerships; and skill development trainings should be provided to the marginalized to improve their economic prospects.

Dual Ownership: Despite being formally abolished in 1996, this continues to exist. End of the initial 6 month claim time, terminated the tenancy rights of 500,000 unregistered tenants. Additionally, cases of tenants with only temporary proof at the time also remain unsolved. The Department of Land Reform and Management (DoLRM) attributes absent claimers (due to internal conflicts or stalling members for personal gains), unpaid dues by land owners, and unidentified owners to be reasons for existing dual ownership; which not only diminishes agricultural productivity but also creates disputes. Tenants continue being evicted for fear of losing 50% land ownership. The government started re-accepting such claims last year; which has further been extended for another year. Donors/ local government/NGOs could encourage claim registrations and help unregistered tenants secure their tenancy rights during this sensitive time.

Land Information System: Traditional paper-based land record systems are vulnerable to manipulations, theft and destruction. Though land records and cadastral maps were digitized in all 129 land revenue and 129 survey offices, except Achhaam and Arghankhanchi where records were destroyed during conflict era; only 19 revenue offices have adopted fully digital systems. Therefore, new registrations are still manual and systems are outdated. Organizational power feud between the revenue and survey departments prevents the formation of an integrated system so mismatched cadastral and record problems may continue. Lastly, Department of Land Information and Archive (DoLIA) carries out its tasks with little to no research which leaves it susceptible to errors and conflicts. All existing land data should be digitally up-to-date, and all offices should be digitally equipped with expert staff before it is handed over to local governments. Local government should then immediately work on creating an integrated cadastral record system. It is also imperative to create a research wing within DoLIA.

Further Recommendations

Properly implementing progressive property rights policies for women through awareness and citizenship procurement, creating fast-track land courts at local/provincial level, passing contract farming policies to increase land productivity and expanding successful community led arbitration models nationally through coordinated public-private support including donor, I/NGOs and CSOs support are other priority recommendations. Hopefully, local level land governance can be the much-needed gateway towards effective land reform.