Madhav Bista looks across the sprawling urban jungle of rapidly expanding Kathmandu Valley, lamenting what he remembers when it was all fields.
But he is not talking about some bygone bucolic idyll slowly suffocated by concrete over decades; the green and pleasant Kathmandu Valley he recalls was a reality just a few years ago.
“Where can you get fertile land such as this now?” the 52-year-old tenant farmer says, pointing at his plot on a rare expanse of lush green land in the shadow of a concrete housing development which encroaches further each year.
“We shouldn’t be destroying nature. Do we want to replace beauty with ugly concrete buildings?” asks the farmer sitting in front of his shed in Dhapakhel of Lalitpur District.
Bista has leased the farmland for Rs 15,000 a month and by selling its produces –mostly green vegetables –he has been able to eke out a living for his family of five. But his very livelihood is under threat.
Known for its deep alluvial soils deposited by a long-vanished lake, the Kathmandu Valley has historically been one of the most productive agricultural regions of South Asia.
But Bista is among hundreds of tenant farmers who face being thrown off their land each year as landowners seek to make fast bucks out of the capital’s unprecedented urbanisation.
The material costs are rising with unemployment among Nepal’s traditional tillers of the land and food prices are inflated as the fruit and vegetable markets of Kathmandu increasingly source their products from India.
But the costs to Kathmandu’s soul may be far greater.
“We need homes. But the real estate developers have blindly sold the fertile land to earn commissions out of it,” he said. “They don’t care about the future generation who will be deprived of the greenery.”
The population of Kathmandu has surged from 400,000 to two million in a little over 20 years, making it one of the world’s fastest growing cities.
Vast new housing developments spring up with alarming regularity on its once-fertile plains, and analysts have warned that the valley will have no arable land left in 25 years.
Mass exodus to the capital began in the early 1990s after the restoration of democracy, with people arriving in their hundreds of thousands each year, seeking education for their children, better healthcare and jobs.
Almost all stayed on, making homes in dozens of new suburbs which sprang up with little regard for planning and encroached on the farmlands stretching out from the surrounding hills.
The urban population was further bolstered by the Maoist insurgency which forced rural families to flee their countryside and seek refuge in the relative safety of the capital.
Urban planner Nirjal Dhakal has called for better policing of current laws and a coherent strategy from the government to ensure that new housing takes place on sites in the hills surrounding Kathmandu rather than on the valley’s farmland.
“Kathmandu severely lacks the basics for adequate living required of a city. Open spaces and courtyards have been converted into public buildings and private properties,” said Dhakal.
“Infrastructure has developed tremendously without taking into consideration the negative impacts of the expansion. Forget farmlands, even the marshes have not been spared, which is against the law,” he said.
According to Dhakal, land prices have increased tenfold in the last decade. Today, a patch of land big enough for a four-room house on the outskirts of the capital costs at least three million Rupees.
The Valley covers an area of 900 square kilometres but is losing more than eight sq km of farmland a year, Dhakal said, warning that if the trend continues, there will be none left by 2037.
More than 50 percent of the Valley has been occupied by concrete buildings, according to Pragun Sundar Sainju, a soil expert at Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC).
He noted another worrying trend, that of landowners selling to brick factories that is further eroding the quality of whatever soil that remains.
“There is huge demand for housing plots, and farmers have been lured into selling their land at astronomical prices,” he said.
“Back in the 1980s, the Valley’s farmers produced enough vegetable and rice for its people. But now, on the one hand the population has grown and as a result the land has shrunk significantly.
“I come from a farming family and it’s disheartening to see this. But we’re unable to do anything,” he said.
Adhikari is a journalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP). You can follow him on Twitter @deepakadk