Kathmandu-Terai/Madhes Fast Track (Expressway) Project is a mega highway project considered as an “infrastructure of national pride” being constructed in Nepal . The 72.5 km long Fast Track runs along the Bagmati River corridor and is expected to cut the travel distance from the capital Kathmandu to the south of the country by 159 km as per existing roads. The Fast Track originates at Sano Khokana of Lalitpur Metropolitan City (south of Kathmandu) and stretches to Nijghad in Bara district in Nepal’s southern plains (known as Terai/Madhes). There it will meet with the East-West (Mahendra) Highway of the country.
The Fast-Track project is expected to reduce the travel distance between Raxaul (Indian border town and largest trading point with Nepal) and Kerung (China's main trading point with Nepal) by 150 kms as part of developing various north-south corridors for increasing connectivity between India and China. So, that way, the Fast-Track contributes to Nepal's prospects to gain from the BRI.
The Fast Track is significantly contentious among indigenous Newar communities of Khokana and adjoining Bungamati towns in Lalitpur where some 6km of the Fast Track will slice through farms and religious trust (Guthi) lands as well as ritual routes and sites of locals . They have been concerned about impacts on their lands, livelihoods and cultures, among others, due to the Fast Track that they have repeatedly raised with the relevant authorities. However, their concerns have not been addressed even in the recently revised alignment of the Fast Track endorsed by the Government of Nepal in September 2019 .
Besides cutting the travel time by an hour, the Fast Track is also expected to serve Nepal’s proposed second international airport – Nijgadh International Airport – in the south of the country. The two infrastructure projects are closely dependent on each other for economic viability . While the fate of the airport is still uncertain, the plans for the airport have been widely criticized for its socio-environmental costs with the need to fell 2.4 million trees and relocation of around 1,500 landless households . In December 2019, Nepal’s Supreme Court issued directive order to the Government of Nepal to halt all ongoing work, including felling of trees, at the construction site of the airport .
In 2006, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had provided technical assistance to investigate feasibility of an investment program of the Fast Track in 2006 as North-South connectivity option for Nepal to enhance trade between India and China, which laid a basis for taking the Expressway forward . An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Fast Track was conducted based on the information from the Government and ADB and their regulations or policies and submitted to the Government by March 2015. Even when the Fast Track was being studied, “there was significant objection” to taking productive agricultural land for the Fast Track Highway in Khokana as noted by the consultants in the EIA report . As per the report, the alignment on the west bank of the Bagmati River has significant advantages that avoid valuable agricultural lands in Khokana. The official copy of the EIA report is yet to be received from the Government authorities despite repeated requests by the affected families’ representatives (by December 2019). Many locals of Khokana and Bungamati demand that the Fast Track be constructed along the west bank of the River to avoid any impact on their agricultural lands and closely-knit communities.
Besides the Fast Track, Kathmandu Outer Ring Road , Bagmati River Basin Improvement Project  and Thankot-Bhaktapur Transmission Line Project  (which has been on hold since 2004 due to community opposition) under Rural Electrification, Distribution and Transmission Project  are other infrastructure projects, which concern the communities. The latter two are also ADB-financed projects. The communities' representatives claim that those projects together will displace the Newar community of the area entirely, whose have been affected due to land acquisitions for various public purposes at different times in the past. After years of delay due to uncertainty on the Project’s modality and financing, the Government of Nepal finally decided to give the responsibility of construction management of the Fast Track to the Nepali Army in April 2017 . Subsequently, the construction of the Expressway was started in other sections of the Fast Track but the Khokana are although the Detailed Project Report (DPR) was only approved in 2019 . Ten Army camps have been set up along the Fast Track alignment, including one in the north of Khokana just off the Sikali hill, which is of cultural and historical significance for the locals as well as Newar and other communities in Kathmandu valley.
The involvement of the Army in the project has led to insecurity and fear among Khokana locals opposing the project. It has also raised questions about the role of the Army in construction works vis-à-vis its influence in other sectors not related to security as well as corruption in the project with involvement of some high-level officials of the Army, which is above the anti-corruption laws of the country .
Loss of lands and livelihoods
Land acquisition notice for the Project was published in March 2016. Khokana and Bungamati representatives, including local political leaders, had immediately submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Home Affairs citing disagreements over the absence of consultation among affected communities about the project design as well as impacts. In September of that year, the local representatives also submitted a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Nepal demanding respect and protection of their rights . Subsequently, various meetings and interactions of the community representatives with the local government representatives, concerned parliamentarians (including a parliamentary inquiry) and relevant Ministry and Nepali Army officials over the years.
At the same time, affected families and community representatives of Khokana and Bungamati together with activists have also organized protests rallies and demonstrations against the project. In 2018, locals and activists protested outside the newly set up Army camp in Khokana. They have also joined affected communities of other infrastructure construction (particularly road expansion) across Kathmandu valley against the government’s push for the Fast Track project affecting their settlements that have cultural and historical importance and calling for removal of the Army from Khokana. However, despite all those efforts, their concerns and demands are yet to be effectively addressed. Though the Government has recently changed the alignment of the Fast Track to be closer to the east bank of the River from its earlier plans, that will still impact the lands of hundreds of families, including Guthi (religious trust or communal) lands in Khokana and Bungamati. While the great majority of the locals had not accepted compensation to give up their land under the earlier notice, the Government has published acquisition notice of additional 400 pieces of land mostly in Khokana and Bungamati (some in nearby Dukuchhap area) in December 2019 . After the alignment change, it will reportedly require compensation for further 338 ropanis (1 ropani = 508.72 sp.m.) of land in Khokana area .
Khokana, where the zero point of the Fast Track is proposed and the project faces the greatest opposition, is a small historical indigenous Newar town. The majority of the locals are farmers and they utilize their spare time weaving, knitting, and hand sewing while it is also widely known for its traditional mustard-oil seed industry. Dependent on agriculture, the land is the most essential part of life and livelihood for Khokana locals. But Khokana stand to lose almost 60% of its fertile farmland and much of its heritage to the new infrastructure projects . They will result in extreme difficulty for the people to survive as they will not be able to sustain their livelihood. In Sano Khokana where the expressway is supposed to start, Asha Maharjan will lose all his property. The fertile soil here is an important part of his family’s history and he remembers ploughing it with his parents when he was young. His eight-member family still relies on harvests for their food and income. “Maybe they can re-route it through non-arable land,” Maharjan says hopefully. “It will save us from being homeless.” . Similarly, Nati kaji Maharjan, 75, had to give up his land for the prison that was never built. Now, it will be the Fast Track that will rob him of the remaining land.” We are farmers. We depend on the land, without it how are we to eat?” asks Maharjan.” How can they take our land and sell it to someone else?”
of cultural and historical sites
The Fast Track will begin at Sikalichaur (open field off a temple) where the annual Sikali Jatra festival is celebrated. That is unique to Khokana as the local do not celebrate Dashain (a major Hindu festival marked across Nepal) but mark Sikali Jatra – a five-day festival with masked dances for Goddess Rudrayani and other deities. The Fast Track will then go through Pingah, the funeral area, Ku Dey, Jugunti, Machaga Bagar, Chankhutirtha – all important parts of Khokana’s cultural circuit on the route to the next town of Bungamati. Ku Dey is where the people of Khokana believe their ancestors first established the settlement—before moving up the ridge to its present location, says Ashoj Maharjan of Lumbini Buddhist University: “It is an important archaeological site, 3,000 years old, which predates Khokana.”
Similarly, at Jugunti, the Jugi community of Newars will lose the cemetery where they have been burying their ancestors for generations. At Chankhu Tirtha, the expressway will go through the land where the final rites of the priests of Rato Machindranath – the deity of rain that has the longest chariot festival in Nepal – are performed.
Conservationists say the new infrastructure can easily be realigned to the west bank of the Bagmati without much extra cost, which would preserve heritage sites. Says Ashoj: “We are not against development, but they are forcing projects on us that threaten our way of life.” “Without the land we won’t be able to continue with any of the rituals,” says Gyan Bhagat, “and the road will cause us to lose all our land. Our culture, our traditions will die.” The community will also lose the temple of its ancestral deity, Pingha, and the expressway will take away the funeral area from where music is played during cremations. People in Khokana have spiritual, social, cultural and economic connection with the land.
At the same time, Khokana can be considered as one of the living museums of Nepal that recalls medieval times when the country was ruled by Malla kings . Even small stone and pebbles carry a distinct history of that place. It was once nominated as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1996 . The whole settlement is filled with tangible and intangible heritage – many of which are historical and unique to the town. One example is a ritual conducted by Pujari Macha Guthi whereby eight young boys conduct a grand puja (ritual) of Goddess Sikali with puja material collected from all over the village which is known as “puja thawanegu” by the locals. During the ritual, nobody is allowed in or around the Sikali temple. Although the Nepali Army claims that they have changed the Fast Track alignment to preserve Sikali temple and other historical places, loss of Guthi and other lands will still significantly impact the cultures. Also, at Ku Dey one of the archaeologically significant areas of Khokana as locals believe, there are sites where local perform various rituals – one of which requires the participants to wear a white long dress (jama and gamchhi). That is similar to ancient Kirat culture (one of the earliest eras of Nepal) suggesting a long-held connection of the place with historical Kirat, Lichhavi, Malla dynasties.
However, contrary to the claim of locals, Nepal’s Department of Archaeology concluded that there was nothing of archaeological importance in Ku Dey. In October 2018, the Department stated that if anything of archaeological value is excavated during the construction of the Fast Track, it will be the responsibility of the constructor to preserve it.
Thus, the locals themselves carried out preliminary excavation of the area in November and found many materials and remains with potential archaeological significance, including paved paths below the current ground level, clay water pipes alongside the road, a well, and other items, such as oil lamp, vessel, etc. However, the Department of Archeology did not pay any attention to the repeated calls of local activists for the preservation of the sites.
and police repression
Locals of Khokana and Bungamati as mentioned above have been organizing various gatherings, protests and demonstrations against the Fast Track project over the years. Khokana locals in particularly have opposed the project in the public hearings for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project itself in 2009. After the first land acquisition notice in 2016, public actions against the project have increased – often with other communities facing similar challenges such as urban road expansion affected families across Kathmandu .
In one such action, in March 2018, Nepal Police brutally repressed the peaceful protest and demonstration of Khokana and Bungamati locals against the Fast Track Project together with the road expansion affected families from across Kathmandu valley. At least six protestors were injured when police fired seven rounds of tear gas and used water cannon at the peaceful rally in capital Kathmandu .
International human rights organizations have voiced concerns against the violations of the rights of Khokana and Bungamati locals, including against the violent response in the peaceful protests . Nepal Police has also intervened in protests in Bungamati near the project site with heavy force and with presence of Nepali Army officials  while the protests outside the army camp in Khokana have also run high with tension with locals fearful of armed military officials . However, the Government has been adamant that the alignment of the Fast Track will not be changed despite protests of Khokana and Bungamati locals .
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