Why does government often fail to address the problems of urban squatters?

This article was originally published in Nepallivetoday on May 11, 2023 by Niyati Shrestha. Ms. Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation. Views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of the organization. She can be reached at [email protected]


Even though the pile of garbage at Singha Durbar has been removed and the foul smell might have cleared up, the hint of federal-local tussle is still eminent. The decision to not collect waste seemed to be an individual commitment of the mayor of Kathmandu Metropolis and an expression of his frustration with the highest level of government for failing to cooperate with the local government regarding many issues. Removal of squatters from the banks of Bagmati river is one of them. Efforts undertaken back in November 2022  failed miserably, a clash between squatters and the city police soon ensued. Settlers claim that there is no alternative and the lack of it thereof forces them to resist. Nevertheless, KMC seems adamant in its efforts to remove them, and without an alternative the eviction might turn into a conflict yet again.

The main problem with squatters is the issue of legality. “Sukumbasi”, as the Nepali nomenclature goes, settle on lands to which they have no title.  They are in the most basic sense, landless people who occupy public lands and build informal settlements. Every now and then, there is news about squatters taking over national property, building illegal concrete settlements, and sometimes even buying and selling off public lands. As per Local Government Operation Act, the management and protection of public barren lands falls under the jurisdiction of local governments and these informal settlements create a nuisance for local governments and sometimes even while executing infrastructure projects like river corridors, river restoration, drainage and sewage system, etc.

In this regard, squatters and their informal settlements have become a burden for the government. Past efforts to address the problem have not yielded any results. For instance, Thapathali eviction led by the Baburam Bhattarai government in 2012 was met with a huge backlash from rights bodies and civil society organizations. Plans were also made to relocate them, giving birth to the Ichangu Narayan Housing Project for squatters. But, this project of 227 housing units with a cost of Rs 120 million failed miserably as squatters refused to move into those buildings after its completion.

Despite having an alternative, squatters still resisted.  To the Sukumbasis the house units were too small to accommodate entire family members and the price for such small accommodation was too high.  The distance between Ichangu Narayan and the central city was also a major concern. Most of the squatters were daily wage workers, commuting from Ichangu Narayan to Kathmandu every day, therefore, would have been a hassle for them. The government missed out on a crucial factor—the livelihood of the squatters while planning the project. This mishap was the result of the government not including Nepal Basobas, a federation for squatters, slums, and landless in the decision-making process while planning, which also points out the situation of power imbalance between the government and squatters.

The situation of power imbalance comes from the perception of the government; how it views squatters and their settlement as purely an issue of legality, considering them as a burden that should be removed from public lands. This narrow outlook is the reason why the local government views eviction and relocation as the only solution to the problem of urban squatters without paying attention to the actual cause of increasing informal settlements. Actually, these landless squatters are those who come to cities in search of better job opportunities to earn a living and the number of increasing informal settlements is in fact the result of high unaffordable housing prices in the urban settings. This inability to meet their housing demands then turns into what Asef Bayat terms as ‘Quiet Encroachment’ where these people silently advance towards private property or the public lands in order to survive and improve their lives over the period of time.

As a matter of fact, these informal settlements are self-organizing communities that reflect two things; the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial spirit of the landless squatters. The transformation of makeshift shelters to more permanent structures, having access to electricity and water, etc are some examples of what is termed as Improvisational or Jugaad urbanism which shows that urban squatters are resilient enough to make something out of limited resources and can earn for themselves to upgrade their standard of living. Jugaad is a common feature of Indian urban space where the residents of squatter settlements continuously improvise and adapt to absorb new migrants and any new kind of economic activities which helps to ensure that India’s growing cities have readily available, flexible low-wage labor supply. In the words of Abdou Maliq Simone, this suggests that urban dwellers are willing to take risks, to put themselves on lines, to change their conditions and to work with others to conquer something tangible. For instance, Ramhiti squatter settlement in Boudha has organized multiple community-led projects like running schools, building roads, organizing local banking systems and even providing loans to the members of the community to start their own business over the period of time.

The fact that urban squatters ditched the built houses of Ichangu Narayan proves that the issue of squatter settlement is not just about the issue of land or occupying public lands but more about economic opportunities and freedom to earn a living here in urban centers. The place that they live in might be messy, disordered or even dirty but behind this urban mess, there exists a complex economy, a collaboration where these people create value by contributing to the urban economy through silent trades of goods and services. This not only allows such people to earn their living but also allows us to enjoy goods and services at more affordable prices. This is what sustains cities and makes it livable for us as well.

The place that squatters live in might be messy, disordered or even dirty but behind this urban mess, there exists a complex economy, a collaboration where these people create value by contributing to the urban economy through silent trades of goods and services.

All of this gives urban squatters a legitimate ground to demand the rights over the city they live in along with the rights not to be evicted from their informal housing without any alternative. While the government holds certain responsibility towards urban planning and protection of public properties, its efforts of instant eviction for the aesthetics of a city become insensitive towards the aspirations of the poor who try to survive here and undermines their right to livelihood. As far as land and safe housing are concerned, the Article 7 of The Right to Housing Act 2018 states that the government of Nepal, provincial government or local level, shall have to provide the homeless person and his/her family with housing facility gradually, as prescribed, on the basis of resources by prioritizing, with mutual coordination. This requires due process of collecting the detailed identity and settlement conditions of the persons and families, providing them with identity cards and then finally making arrangements of resettlement. All of this might take time and local governments must cooperate with the higher level of government and other involved stakeholders to come up with solutions.

Unless the government is able to look beyond its limited perspective of squatters as simply a legal issue, an effective resolution is unlikely to be achieved, resulting in resistance and sometimes even violent confrontations.