By Dev Kumar Sunuwar
Almost four months have passed since Chitwan National Park authorities forcefully attempted to evict ten Chepang families from buffer zones in South Central Nepal by burning down and destroying their houses. Landless Chepang families are still awaiting permanent housing promised by many, including the government, following the incident.
On July 18, 2020, employees of the Chitwan National Park, led by a warden, burned down two houses and destroyed eight others using hordes of elephants to evict Chepang families living in Kusum Khola, in Madi Municipality-9, Chitwan district. Ten families were rendered homeless and almost all families lost their official documents, money, and other possessions in the incident.
Kusum Khola is a remote area only reached after about a two-hour drive from Bharatpur to Bagai and then by walking for over three hours on foot. There is no access to transportation in the region.
Though Kusum Khola lies in a buffer zone of the Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, 160 Chepang families from the Makawanpur and Tanahu districts had descended to and are living there, after their houses were destroyed by massive landslides. They could not afford to buy private land, thus had built thatched houses in Kusum Khola areas. The park officials have committed atrocities against Chepang families time and again continue to chase them away from the buffer zone.
In Madi municipality, the local government had already relocated 150 Chepang families in Raidanda, Gairigau, Shivadwar and Pyauli, and was also preparing to relocate the remaining 10 families too, according to Thakur Prasad Dhakal, mayor of Madi.
“New houses being built for them in Pyauli were stopped by Park authorities, as the area also lies in the buffer zone. Thus the relocation program was halted and I have already communicated with the families to continue living in Kusum Khola until we find a solution,” says Dhakal, adding, “they were living there not by choice but because the houses slated for them were incomplete due to the Park’s order.”
Moreover, Mayor Dhakal said that the Park authorities destroyed Chepang houses without coordinating with the municipal office at a time when plans were being drawn to manage the Chepang families’ housing needs.
“Chepang Peoples are also citizens of this country. We have rights to live in this country. We do not have private lands to build our houses. We do not have money to buy private land, either. So, where do we go? If the government has problem with us living inside a protected area, it should better show us where we can build our huts,” says Jitendra Chepang, chairperson of Nepal Chepang Association, an umbrella organization of Chepang Indigenous Peoples. Chepang adds, “But the government has never told us where we can go, so we have been wandering. This is an injustice; we do not accept it.”
Nepal has as many as 12 national parks, 1 wildlife reserve, 1 hunting reserve, 6 protected areas and 13 buffer zones. In all these protected and conservation areas, Indigenous Peoples have been suffering multiple violations. The July incident in Chitwan is just the latest example that shows how Indigenous Peoples have been victimized in the name conservation in Nepal.
The Park’s move to evict landless Chepang families of Kusum Khola by vandalism, especially when the country is going through COVID-19 pandemic has drawn widespread criticism. Following the incident, the Madi municipality issued a press statement condemning the Park’s act of displacing Chepang families and expressed commitments to reinitiate the construction of houses and provide housing as soon as possible.
Similarly, on July 27, a group comprising 14 human rights lawyers filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding to stop forceful eviction of landless Chepang people until a lasting settlement is secured and to issue an order to the Home Ministry to form an investigation team and take action against Park officials. The case now is pending for hearing at the Court.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also formed a probe team which conducted a field visit for investigation into the forceful eviction. They issued a statement urging the government to “provide them shelter at the earliest and ensure their right to housing, equally to provide them a due compensation.”
Park officials first denied the demolition of homes of Chepang families. But later, minister of Forests and Environment, Shakti Bahadur Basnet, stated, “It is the cowsheds, not the houses, had been burned.”
Following the massive coverage and vehement criticism of the incident nationally and internationally, the Ministry of Forests and Environment also formed a probe team, conducted a field visit, and prepared a report. Additionally, the Ministry of Forests and Environment transferred the chief warden of the Park, Narayan Prasad Rupakheti, to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.
Similarly, a team of parliamentarians, led by Purna Kumari Subedi also conducted a field visit, and submitted a report to the parliamentary committee on human rights violations. However, none of the fact-finding missions have made their reports public nor has there been any efforts made to ensure the Chepang families’ rights to shelter.
Chepang Peoples number 68,399 people and are spread across 9 districts. Traditionally nomadic communities, about 90 percent of Chepang do not own land and hunting, shifting cultivation, and foraging for wild roots and foods are their source of sustenance.
The 2015 Constitution of Nepal guarantees the right to housing as a fundamental human right. Article 37, the provision on the “right relating to housing” provides two guarantees. Firstly, it guarantees that “every citizen shall have the right to appropriate housing” and secondly, it states, “no citizen shall be evicted from the residence owned by him or her nor shall his or her residence be infringed except in accordance with law.”
Similarly, in order to provide a legislative framework for implementation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, the government also enacted the 2018 Right to Housing Act 2018. The preamble of Act mentions that the legislation has been brought into force to guarantee every homeless citizen appropriate housing.
The right to housing also has been recognized as part of the human right to an adequate standard of living in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Similarly, the ILO Convention 169 and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically refer to Indigenous Peoples’ right to housing. The right to housing thus undoubtedly is the right of Indigenous Peoples, including Chepang Peoples, to live somewhere in security and peace and with dignity. But the incidents involving Chepang families in the name of conservation, contradict the Constitution as well as national and international laws.
Chepang families whose homes were destroyed were living in a temporary shelter in a school hotel nearby for a few weeks. They later returned to Kusum Khola and rebuilt temporary thatched huts and were living with fear of suffering the same fate again. Former member of the Constituent Assembly, Govinda Ram Chepang, says, “Not the reports and recommendations, but Chepang families, who have been forcibly evicted, are looking forward to seeing an effective remedy, including an adequate alternative housing and compensation as soon as possible.”