By Tufan Neupane

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 given a contract, based on a tender, for fishing along the river. The contractor needs to pay NPR 250,000 (USD 2,180) to 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 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.

Giving up hope on the offices of the local government, 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 works of breaking up pebbles and sand processing.” They now have neither fish to eat, or sell.

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Women have played a key role in conserving the river. Image via The Third Pole/ Abhaya Raj Joshi

The women organise

The women of Mahakali municipality number 9 have established a-28-member Kalika Women Empowerment Centre. These women had prohibited the acts of throwing garbage in the river. Likewise, they had prohibited the act of fishing by using poison, electricity and explosive equipment. This was after witnessing the harm of these activities, poisoned little fish, and serious injuries. One villager had lost a limb while using explosives.

“We had made plans of fishing in a certain season after conserving them the whol 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 wonderin 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. Women had made efforts of river conservation at a time when their husbands were in India for work.

“We had conserved the river – not even allowing the villagers to fish,” Shanta Sunar, the Deputy Coordinator of the Centre, 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 it is supposed to govern.

Revenue Sharing: An Apple of Discord between Local Levels

The Mahakali Bhimdatta municipality and Mahakali municipality from each other. 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 municipalies, 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 continued 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 percent of the revenues. The Mahakali municipality asked for a 50-50 split, but the Bhimdatta municipality is not ready to more than 35 percent. 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. The unresolved border, or “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 Mahakali River. According to Dil Bahadur Sinjalai, Ward Chair of Mahakali municipality-6 and a member of the Task Force, a continued negotiation made an agreement of 50-50 revenue sharing. However, Bhimdatta municipality did not accept it. Himal Chand, Ward Chair of Bhimdatta municipality-11, and also a member of the Task Force, says that Mahakali municipality demanded 50% of revenues without any concrete basis whereas revenues need to be distributed on the basis of population, geography, stage of development, exploitation of river resources, impacts of export.

This topic entered the District Coordination Committee after the Task Force of Ward Chairs failed to reach an agreement. Again, no agreement could be reached, and then Maan Bahadur Sunar, a member of the provincial parliament, tried, and also failed to help the municipalities reach an agreement.

Bir Bahadur Sunar, mayor of Mahakali municipality, says that the revenue sharing dispute is connected to not only with Bhimdatta municipality but also with Shuklaphanta National Park. Mahakali municipality shares its border with Shuklaphanta National Park. No other agencies except Shuklaphanta National Park can collect revenues in the areas where the Park shares its border with the river. Since the river is considered as the border, Mahakali municipality has been claiming its share with the revenues generated by the river.

This revenue sharing dispute also remains unresolved.

Making a new federalism work

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The competing jurisdictions of federal, provincial and municipal governments over the Mahakali make it difficult to resolve disputes. Image via The Third Pole/ Ramesh Bhushal

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 issue of the 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 based on cooperation, co-existence and coordination, and the federal system will be institutionalised once the disputes are being resolved.

The third mechanism envisaged is a constitutional remedy. The Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court does have the right to make constitutional remedy on such disputes. The Constitutional Bench works two days a week, and it does have the power of making ‘judicial review’ as well. Because of a load of writs, it has not been able to resolve the cases in a timely fashion, and the squabble over resources between two tiny municipalities on the India-Nepal border is unlikely to get its attention any time soon.

It seems that local conflicts will need local dispute settlement if they are to work, but there is no such institutional mechanism available.

The Third Pole is a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there. This report was originally published on thethirdpole.net and has been reproduced here with permission.

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