UN rights experts apprised of violation of rights of indigenous Pradhan Newars for construction of a mega business complex

Kathmandu, 9 Feb

Two non-governmental organizations have submitted an urgent communication to UN rights experts alleging that a Nepali private company has unlawfully acquired the communal trust lands of indigenous Pradhan Newar community of Kathmandu to construct a mega business complex. As a result, the religious and cultural customs and traditions of Pradhan Newars based on the pond and its embankment lands have been devastated and thus their cultural rights and rights to cultural rights and rights to lands and resources violated, the communication reads.

Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples and National Coalition Against Racial Discrimination jointly submitted the communication to the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in the field of cultural rights on Monday. They have urged the Special Rapporteurs to correspond with the Government of Nepal about the need to take immediate action to defend, protect and promote the rights of the indigenous Pradhan Newars to their land, resources, sacred places and culture.

The planned business complex Chhaya Center is currently under construction in the tourist district of Thamel in Kathmandu metropolis. Its developer Chhaya Devi Complex Pvt. Ltd. has promoted it as “the biggest business complex in Nepal’s history” being built in a total area of 76,000 sq. ft. As per the communication, the land on which the complex is being built is communal trust land of local Pradhan community. The company has reportedly acquired the land, which historically held a holy pond and its embankments, through a long series of abuse of authority and corruption.

Local Pradhans had traditionally used the pond for their daily rituals in the nearby Newar monastery, death rites, festivals as well as other religious and cultural purposes. During the dictatorial Rana oligarchy, then Prime Minister Keshar Shumsher Rana forcefully annexed the pond in the compound of his palace – Keshar Mahal – built in 1895 while the Pradhan Newars were given limited access to the pond.  A small royalty was paid to the monastery for the acquisition of the pond and embankment land. Idols and structures of various gods and deities in the embankment of the pond were moved. The tradition of using water and lotus flower from the pond for daily worship at the monastery was discontinued and a stone nearby was used as the site for death rites.

Following the death of Keshar Shumsher in 1964, his son Keyur Shumsher unlawfully got the land of the pond and its embankments registered as trust lands under his tenancy ownership through abuse of authority conniving with few locals and government officials by 1977. Following number of fragmentation and transfers of ownership of the land, the land was brought under private ownership of the company in 2009 and approval for construction of the business complex was acquired in 2013.

Whereas construction of the complex is ongoing at a rapid pace within high concrete walls and tin fences, many customs and traditions of local Pradhans have been entirely discontinued or dishonorably altered and the idols and structures moved from the embankments of the pond have been in the state of utter despair in lack of adequate preservation in an open space that has more or less turned into parking area and/or spot for street vendors in the side of a busy street. Further, the construction of the complex even presents further challenges to existing practices and customs of the community, including observance of communal rituals and festivals in the remaining space.

Many locals have been fearful to speak against the construction of the complex due to strong influence of the investors in political circles, as well as their connections to land mafia. Nonetheless, some locals filed a case at Kathmandu District Court demanding repeal of all transactions of the communal trust land in 2014. However, the court process has been sluggish with hearings postponed repeatedly. Complaints submitted to the National Human Rights Commission and Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority on the issue also did not produce any result for the community.

A representative of the Pradhan community along with rights advocates filed a public interest litigation writ petition in Nepal’s Supreme Court in July 2014 against the company, local officials and concerned government authorities and ministries. The writ petition claims that right to religion and cultural rights of the Pradhans have been violated, along with infringement of other constitutional rights and different national laws. It calls for an Interim Order to immediately halt the construction of the complex and freeze any transaction of the land as well as a mandamus order to retain the pond and its embankment as public property and to undertake initiatives for protection of such public properties.

While the Supreme Court did not issue an interim order to halt construction of the complex, it has issued a show cause order to the defendants. Nonetheless, the proceedings at the Supreme Court have also been very slow.

The organizations, in the communication, have informed that the situation involves violations of rights of Pradhan Newars as guaranteed by international human rights instruments, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In lack of effective national remedies, they have urged the rights experts to come together to condemn such continued violations of rights and consider ways to intervene to ensure that the Government of Nepal protects and promotes human rights as it is obligated to do.

Click here for PDF of the original communication.

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