For my last walk this year (October 2011) we take the bus to the end of the line in Bhaktapur, one of the Kathmandu Valley’s original three kingdoms. At the center are elaborate palaces, multi-tier temples, and private houses all with spectacular carved windows, doors and roof ornamentation. We are out among the farms that used to support the old city.
Unlike everywhere we’ve gone before, these fields are still covered not with houses but rice. Rice here takes 150 days from sowing to harvest but only 100 near the Indian border. That rice doesn’t taste so good. This rice would be very popular but the villagers can barely produce enough to feed their own fast-growing local population.
We chat with a couple from far western Nepal where survival is barely possible. They’ve rented a house and are weaving chair carpets for sale to a finisher who sells them to retailers. They also have a garden where they grow veg to sell to the migrant brick factory workers who will arrive soon from India. They get very little for either carpets or veg but it’s enough to support them and their two small kids.
Next we stop at a tea house where half a dozen men are chatting. An animated older guy tells us they are all adamant about not selling their land. They want to live the rest of their lives the way they always have, working in the fields. Their children go to school, which none of them did, and want office jobs, of which there are not nearly enough. The men know their land will be built over but they’re determined it won’t happen until they’re dead. These are the first anti-development folks we’ve met. The old guy tells us a Nepali proverb: “More development means more beggars”. It means more productive new methods result in fewer jobs.
Scattered among the fields are small brick factories with great tall chimneys. Bricks were traditionally made on-site here from sun-dried clay. When reinforced concrete post and beam construction was introduced 25 years or so ago, fired brick technology was introduced from India. The clay bricks are still molded by hand and dried in the sun but they are then placed in the huge chimneys and coal-fired. That’s why it’s a seasonal activity. The work can’t be done during the rainy season. It’s very hard work out in the sun for the men from Bihar, India’s poorest province on Nepal’s border.
In our next tea house the men tell us about coal smoke and dust pollution from the brick factories. It’s unhealthy for them and devastating for their cauliflower crops. The Kathmandu Valley was famous for its tasty cauliflower. Less tasty cauliflower now has to be imported from at least 35 miles away. There’s a law that no brick factory can be within three kilometers of a village or school but the law is not enforced. The people from this village mounted a big protest five years ago. Two were killed. There was no justice for the killings and nothing was done about the brick factory. The police and justices were bought off by the factory owner.
We walk back a little way on the same road. It’s being upgraded to be a through road between Bhaktapur and Nuwakot. The villagers complaining about the brick factories are eager for it to be completed and traffic to begin flowing. Then they expect to sell out for huge money.
We turn onto a six-inch wide path among the rice paddies to a bus stop. The bus is an Indian relic packed tight inside so our only option is the roof. The bus rolls wildly from side to side over the corrugated dirt tracks. It looks terrifying from the ground but feels fine and is safer than being inside because you can if necessary jump off. You cannot ride on the roof in the city where electricity wires dangle low over the streets so I don’t get to ride up there for long.
Tomorrow morning my Tibetan Buddhist classes start. Now I’m off for a happy-making dal bhat (rice, lentil and “spinach”) dinner.