Three urban areas in transition – Urban perspectives from Nepal

Picture1Nepal is still one of the least urbanized countries in the world, with only 17 % of the Nepalese population living in urban areas in 2012 (WB 2014). Thus, the country is in a phase where it is undergoing significant spatial transitions, and it faces a new urban future: villages are abandoned, towns change into urban areas and cities grow and sprawl. Urban growth occurs in big cities, but smaller urban areas are equally challenged by the spatial transformation. In Nepal, as on global scale, urban growth urgently needs attention and needs to be understood; extensive research is necessary to comprehend the future challenges from these spatial changes.

Ilam hill town with a gold and recharge card economy

IMG_6338The last years house constructing in Ilam has been booming. According to the municipality, 200 new houses are being built every year. The topography of Ilam is not the challenge it seems to be, houses are mushrooming up everywhere on the steep hillsides.The traditional houses are two story wood houses, but as wood is expensive, and the traditional building style has changed, and now only modern concrete houses with designs copied from Kathmandu that are build in the small hill station in the eastern Nepal. The new houses on the hill slopes gives Ilam a new urban look.

Truck after truck are supplying iron, cement and brick to build new houses, they are moving up the extremely winded and narrow highway. Houses are mainly build along the road, where there is an opportunity for combining residence and business. Before only local constructors were employed in Ilam but now builders from many places including India come to Ilam to work in the booming constricting industry .

Economic activities in Ilam has mainly been focusing on agricultural production Ilam is fertile, and there is an excellent opportunity for different cash crops. HoIMG_6069wever, there is no production or processing industry in Ilam, and no opportunity for processing the local cash crops and secure higher price or employ people to keep them in the area. Moreover, there is no policy from the government to make farmers take new initiatives in farming.The consequence is that young people from the rural areas in Ilam district go to other countries to work as labor migrant.

People in Ilam are aware that the spatial development of their place is driven mainly by money from outside; they say that the economy is “based on gold and re-charge cards (for mobile phones)”. The eminent problem is that the remittances only are invested in unproductive matters. The labor migrants tend to invest in land, houses, and clothes or save the money in the bank or buy gold. There are several reasons for this: The return migrants lack the skills to invest their money in production, the political situation is not stable, and the environment for establishing a business in Nepal is not favorable.

Ilam is like other cities in Nepal suffering from the problem of not knowing the exact number of people living in the area. In the national census, attempt are made to count the so-called “absent IMG_6472population” to determine the people that for different reason are living outside the place where they are registered. This encompasses both the labor migrants, educational migrants but also the more permanent migrant who have decided to keep their citizenship registered in their birthplace, to keep rights to land property. However, on the other hand, the municipality is interested in knowing the number of people actually living in Ilam. A local journalist say that they were waiting for the 2011 census results with expectation “we expected the number should be around 40.000, but the census showed only 18.000”. This is fatal for the municipality as the budget is allocated on the basis of population. The munIMG_6688icipality made attempts to count the students on the campuses, men in the army camp and other temporary settlers and landed at a rough estimate of a population of 40.000 people. The females are in the majority in Ilam the majority of students are girls, boys are send to better schools and colleges.

Birtamode – transformation and transition

Today Birtamode is a center for education, a local service center for Jhapa district, and a supply and trading hub for the whole, district. Everyone in Birtamode believe that Birtamode will continue to grow fast in the future – Urbanization has just started: Some even predict it to be the biggest city in Nepal within a decade or two. Birtamode acts as a bridge between the rural hill area and other highly developed areas in Nepal and India. Birtamode has a real “big-city atmosphere”, the rapid development is evident everywhere. Birtamode works as transportation and trading hub, and it becomes apparent that everything is for sale, including the girls in the city’s new and busy red-light district. That also characterizes the urban and careless atmosphere, where rich people are getting richer, the middle class of migrants lucky with successful business and poor people with difficulties getting food enough for the day are living next to each there in an emergent melting pot. The importance of location and infrastructure, and the demographic transition forced mainly by in migration and had lead the urbanization and the economic boom of the new trade center in the flat Terai lowland in the eastern corner of Nepal.IMG_4728

Birtamode is certainly a fast-growing business hub, and educational hub in Nepal, Cash crops produced in the fertile surroundings is being sold here. There are all kinds of shops, and even malls with gym only for (middle class) women and even a shop selling sex-toy. Birtamode is the city of sin, a place where everything can happen. The chair of Birtamode chamber of commerce in not in doubt:

“Here is all kind of business, from cement to tea, we have got 25 tea industries in the area, all are producing 20 million kg. 1000 new shops opens in Birtamode every year mostly hotels, beauty parlors and grocery shops right now is the third most prominent business center behind Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Birtamode has no original peopIMG_5747le and can be considered a multicultural society. People from different cast and culture live in Birtamode. Birtamode has adopted elements from the Indian culture, reminding us that not only goods travel across the nearby border, but also culture and mentality. Indian culture is easily visible in the food, the language and the Indian tobacco chewing and spitting men that colors the streets red.  Therefore is it difficult for people to define the identity of the place they are living. There is now common history that the people can hold on to because everybody in Birtamode are migrants, “it is like America” say the grandson of one of the landlords in the area.IMG_5818

People of Birtamode are different. Several people came to Birtamode to get an easy live and a relaxed lifestyle, as they saw job and opportunities. However, it was not all who got what they wanted here in Birtamode, and they did not have same opportunities, and now people of different economic status reside in Birtamode. Driving through Birtamode, you see the big house, shopping centers, and young people in fancy clothes. On the surface people in Birtamode is quite well off but if you go under the surface and look at the houses and the people of Birtamode there are also dark sides of Birtamode; There are people who cannot earn enough to feed their children on a daily basis. For, e.g., those who work as Rickshaw Puller, House constructor, etc.

Balaju – Sub urbanization in the Kathmandu’s Urban frontier.

Balaju is a suburb to the growing capital, Kathmandu, after Balaju is the Nargajun mountain, making a geographical barrier for further urban expansion. The different history and historical development of the two sides of the case area capture nicely two faces of the urbanization of Kathmandu. One side of Balaju is totally disorganized with houses scattered with no system and very limited infrastructure. The other part of Balaju, on the plain land, is part of a top-down urban development project, called “land pooling” where an area is plotted in a grid system with all the needed infrastructure. Looking at the area on satellite images or during field visit the contrast is remarkable and the physically changes are remarkable. The land use is changing very rapid, it seems like a big urban monster is eating the rural areas surrounding the city bite by bite. The major challenges is how to administer the exploding growth and how to addresses the major urban problems, like drinking water, infrastructure, and pollution and considers future directions for its development.
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The location of Balaju have never been favorable for business or trading, the determine factor for the urbanization process in the area is only the distance to Kathmandu center, and as the city keep sprawling and have now reached well beyond the ring road. Balaju has therefore developed as a residential area, for the new urban middle class.IMG_3872

Kathmandu is a city of farmers, as a high percentage recently have moved from rural areas. Being able to supply themselves and their family with homegrown fresh food has been an essential part of their lifestyle, it is not possible anymore. It is essential for the people to eat their own products, and many of them have started to grow vegetable at small plots outside the house, next to the pavement where there is a bit of land and even on the roof of the typical flat buildings.

The farmer mentality is easy to find in Balaju, and especially in Raniban, gardens with spinach, potatoes and cauliflower are made at all empty spots where houses yet are to be build and in-between the house. People fell like villagers; the locals because they have a wish of keeping it as it was just 20 years ago, and the migrants because it reminds them of a village, with the hills in the back and the fresh air. like the place they left not with good will but because of the urban opportunities.

Overlooking Balaju from one of the higher points it is easy to see the land use change, in this frontier region of Kathmandu. It is evident that the urban eats up the rural, and that houses are mushrooming up, changing the fertile land to a densely populated suburb. The development have been so fast that many of the locals still feel like living in a village, they consider it rural, even when hundreds of houses are surrounding the place they live, one of them say that “Our way of living is still rural” They claim that for an area to be urban you need have better roads and water facilities and none of them are available “so I don’t feel like I am living in a city”.part-of-the-kathmandu-valley-from-nagarjuna-hill-above-balaju-the-city-of-kathmandu-and-the-vishumati-river

These areas are indirectly benefiting from the projected and planned improvements of the project area. Most of the people who have invested in houses and land live in America or Europe. Some of the houses are build from remittance money, for some who have send their children to Europe or America to study and now benefit from the higher salary.

The new population in Balaju are remarkably more wealthy than the general level in Birtamod and Ilam and the houses are bigger. Balaju is an example of a new urban middle-class suburb. Local landowners have benefited from the rising land prices IMG_3874and old houses are being replaced by new houses of similar design and sizes as those of the locals.

During research in  Balaju people were concerned with the issue of water. Water sacristy in Kathmandu is a big problem, and they are starting to feel how urbanization is affecting their daily life. The area have had favorable water resources earlier as there was a big water reservoir on top of Nagajun hill, the water was filtered and drinking water was supplied to people’s houses. But there is no supply longer and because of the growing number of houses and population there water resources are drying up over the whole are. People used to have private wells and there was water 1 ft down. Now you have to dig 10 ft. down to get water, do the concerned farmers tell. Water is supplied by the government but only twice a week for two hours  On the hillside in the Raniban area are the locals  still farmers, they did not move to the city, but the city came to them, and they do not have an alternative strategy to agriculture.

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