This is the second part of a two-part series on livelihoods and conflict along the Mahakali. Read the first part here.

There are three settlements of the Sona community in Bhimdatta municipality wards 11 (Bhujela) and 12 (Airi). Fishing has been their means of livelihood for generations, but is now under threat. The Bhimdatta municipality gives a contract, based on a tender, for fishing along the river. The contractor needs to pay NPR 250,000 (USD 2,180) the municipality for the monopoly on fishing in the area.

Munna Sona, a 55-year-old resident of Airi, used to collect 2-3 kilogrammes of fish per fishing trip, selling them in the market to buy foodgrain to feed his family. This is no longer possible.

“The contractor says that I have invested a huge [amount of] money. From now onwards you are not allowed to fish,” Munna said. “If you want to continue fishing, you need to take permission by paying NPR 3,000 (USD 26). How can I pay that amount of money at a single time?” Per capita income in Nepal is just over USD 1,000 per annum. NPR 3,000 would represent approximately ten day’s earnings of an average person.

Sona and some of his friends approached the Ward Office to express their concerns.

“The staff of Ward Office said that they will ask the contractor to reduce [the permit cost] by NPR 200-400. We were compelled to pay NPR 2,500 (USD 22) for permission,” he said.

Munna Sona now works as a daily labourer.

Premwati Sona, 53, from the same area, said that her family have not eaten fish since the contract was awarded. “Previously my husband and sons used to bring fish from the river. If we had got enough fish, we used to buy food grains from the money earned by selling fish,” she said.

“Now we need to pay money to the contractor in advance. We don’t have that money to pay. We left the fishing occupation. Now we are engaged in the work of breaking up pebbles and sand processing.”

Women have played a key role in conserving the river [image by: Abhaya Raj Joshi]

The women organise

The women of Mahakali municipality number 9 have established a-28-member Kalika Women Empowerment Centre (WEC). These women had prohibited the throwing of garbage in the river. Likewise, they had prohibited fishing by using poison, electricity or dynamite. This was after one villager had lost a limb while using explosives.

“We had made plans of fishing in a certain season after conserving them the whole year,” Purna Devi Kasera, the coordinator of the centre, said “But the municipality offered a contract to a contractor leaving no room for benefit to the people who are devoted to the conservation of the river.” Now people are left wondering why they should conserve a resource which will be exploited by others.

The municipality has developed ‘Fishery Guidelines’. A length of 1,200 metres along the river is identified as a “protected area”. Fishing is prohibited in the months of March, April, August and September.

“We had conserved the river – not even allowing the villagers to fish,” Shanta Sunar, the deputy coordinator of the WEC, said. “The villagers became our enemies after the municipality offered a contract to a contractor.”

The narrow goal of extracting maximum revenues is turning the local government against the very people on behalf of whom it is supposed to govern.

Revenue sharing: an apple of discord between local levels

The Mahakali Bhimdatta municipality and Mahakali municipality are adjacent. Since no exact demarcation line is drawn between the two municipalities, the river serves as a border. The river is also the main source of income for the municipalities, heightening tensions, since they were given the power to manage the river resources two years ago.

Bhimdatta municipality entered into a contract for NPR 44.3 million (USD 386,000) to mine the riverbed for materials in August 2019. After a feud regarding revenue sharing remained unsolved, the Mahakali municipality also issued a tender call of NPR 10.12 million (USD 88,000).

Each municipality wants to keep 70% of the revenues. The Mahakali municipality asked for a 50-50 split, but the Bhimdatta municipality is not ready to give more than 35%. While the municipalities receive funds from the federal and provincial governments, their main source of revenue remains rent tax, property tax, and other local forms of revenue generation. “Ownership” of the river is therefore of prime importance.

After failing to reach an agreement, both municipalities made a task force comprising of four ward chairs of each municipality that are connected to the Mahakali River. Dil Bahadur Sinjalai, ward chair of Mahakali municipality-6 and a member of the task force, blames the Bhimdatta municipality for not agreeing to a 50-50 revenue sharing formula. Himal Chand, ward chair of Bhimdatta municipality-11, and also a member of the task force, counters by saying the other municipality is not taking into account relative population, geography, stage of development, exploitation of river resources or impacts of export.

The local district coordination committee failed to broker an agreement. So did Maan Bahadur Sunar, a member of the provincial parliament.

Bir Bahadur Sunar, mayor of Mahakali municipality, says that the revenue sharing dispute is with Shuklaphanta National Park authorities as well Bhimdatta municipality. Mahakali municipality shares a border with the protected forest, and the law says only the forest department can collect revenue along the border of a national park.

Making new federalism work

The competing jurisdictions of federal, provincial and municipal governments over the Mahakali make it difficult to resolve disputes [image by: Ramesh Bhushal]

Bhimarjun Acharya, a constitutional law expert, says that since federalism in its current form is new to Nepal, there is no experience in resolving disputes among different units. He thinks that the disputes will only increase, going from river resources to other shared natural resources like forests and mines.

This debate is spinning out in other areas as well. A lawsuit regarding forest usage between Province-2 and the Federal Government is in the Supreme Court. Similarly, there is a dispute between Province-5 and Gandaki Province with regard to construction of a diversion in Tinau River. Karnali Province has claimed its ownership in the Bheri-Babai Multipurpose Diversion Project.

See: River diversion plan tests Nepal’s federal Constitution

The federal, provincial, and local governments have different areas of jurisdiction according to the new Constitution promulgated in 2015. In practice, though, it is hard to disentangle them.

The Constitution has envisaged three types of mechanisms to resolve such a dispute. One of them is the Inter-Provincial Council under Article 234 of the Constitution. This, though, does not deal with a dispute taking place at the municipal level.

The next mechanism is National Natural Resource and Fiscal Commission constituted under article 251 of the Constitution. The responsibility of this Commission is to ‘make recommendations about coordination and mitigation of disputes likely to arise regarding the distribution of natural resources between the Federation and Province, between the Provinces, between a Province and Local Level entity, or between Local Level entities.’

Gopikrishna Khanal, Joint-Secretary and Spokesperson of the Commission, says that not even a single dispute has been registered formally in the Commission. “We are aware that disputes may arise. We study the technical aspects of the possible disputes, and submit the conclusions of the study to the government as suggestions,” he said.

He said that the Nepali model of federalism is based not on competition, but on cooperation, coexistence and coordination, and the federal system will be institutionalised once the disputes are resolved.

The third mechanism envisaged is a constitutional remedy, a right that is vested in the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court. The bench sits two days a week, and has a long backlog of disputes to resolve. A squabble over resources between two small municipalities 700 km from capital Kathmandu is unlikely to get attention any time soon.

This work was supported by The Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden. Views expressed are solely those of the author

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