In this blog ARISE colleagues in Nepal, Saugat Joshi, Alisha Karki, Barsha Rijal, Rudra Neupane and Jiban Karki, discuss the challenges of building trust and gaining access to informal settler communities, in order to undertake research and intervention activities.
In Nepal, the term sukumbasi is frequently used in a derogatory manner to describe slum dwellers. For the majority of people in Kathmandu, the term evokes images of ‘land grabbers’ and ‘river polluters’. Several reports indicate that in Kathmandu alone, there are nearly 50 squatter settlements with 2,800 households. A national report published by the Ministry of Urban Development in Nepal, indicates that around ten percent of the urban population lives in informal settlements, and they are mushrooming in major cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara.
In Kathmandu, the Bagmati river bank in particular has been facing a significant rise in the number of slum dwellers. In the past decade, political conflict in Nepal had caused a large number of people to be displaced from their original birth areas to the cities and to these informal settlements. Recently, the situation around the bank of the Bagmati river in the Thapathali area of Kathmandu has become tense due to the eviction informal settlers. Tensions have risen since city officials decided to evict people them from the settlement. The squatters responded by throwing stones and attacking Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) staff with homemade weapons including sickles and khukuri (a type of machete). They also organised a protest in front of the KMC office demanding proper management of the squatters and the resignation of certain KMC staff.
The challenges of gathering accurate information
When we began our research, we heavily relied on existing literature and reports related to informal settlements in Kathmandu. However, we quickly realised that there were significant discrepancies in the data. Different sources used varying names for the same settlements, and the reported locations often didn’t align with what we found on the ground. This made it challenging to even identify and locate these settlements accurately.
To address these discrepancies, we decided to visit each of the 32 ward offices in Kathmandu to gather information from local officials. Armed with this data, we embarked on the daunting task of visiting and documenting the conditions of these settlements and visited 55 settlements, but this process included its own set of challenges. As soon as we entered the settlements, residents were curious about the reason for our visit. Given the tense relationship between informal settlers and the Kathmandu metropolis, most settlements had placed bans on outsiders visiting their communities, including journalists, NGOs, and researchers. Residents were concerned with potential negative portrayals in the media, particularly on informal platforms like YouTube, Facebook, as well as in certain newspapers and television channels which had depicted them as landowners and well-to-do people. Gaining the trust and cooperation of residents required time and patience.
To overcome these initial barriers, we made efforts to clarify our intentions and build trust. We approached the ‘Society for the Preservation of Shelter and Habitation in Nepal,’ an umbrella organisation representing landless people, for support. After extensive discussions, the organisation agreed to back our initiative. However, we had to conduct more than six meetings in each settlement followed by discussions, and presentations to convince individual settlements to allow us to start our research.
Community-based organisations (CBOs) and co-operation
Our breakthrough came when we engaged with community-based organisations (CBOs) within the settlements. After explaining our objectives and intentions, these CBOs gradually allowed us access to their communities. This was a significant turning point in our research, as it enabled us to gather valuable insights directly from the residents.
While our research efforts were met with cooperation and understanding in many informal settlements, one notable exception was the Balkhu settlement which is one of the largest informal settlements in Kathmandu. Despite multiple attempts and the presentation of official request letters from relevant authorities, the informal settlers did not allow us to enter their settlement. The resistance and refusal to grant us access to Balkhu was not merely a logistical hurdle. It highlighted the deeper layers of mistrust and scepticism that exist between informal settlers and external stakeholders including researchers.
Conducting a study on informal settlements in Kathmandu, Nepal, posed numerous challenges, including uncovering discrepancies in existing information, suspicion and resistance from settlement residents, and the difficulty in gaining access to certain settlements. The role of community gate keepers, whether they were local representatives of political parties, leaders of community groups or NGOs, were vital to accessing these informal settlements. Without their buy in it was impossible to enter the community. Nevertheless, through collaboration with community-based organisations and transparency in our intentions, we were able to overcome many of these obstacles and gain valuable insights into the lives of those residing in these informal settlements. Our experiences underscore the importance of building trust and understanding the unique dynamics at play when researching such sensitive and marginalised communities.
About ARISE in Nepal
PHASE (Practical Help Achieving Self-Empowerment) Nepal is a non-governmental, working to improve health, education, and livelihood of deprived communities since its inception in 2006. PHASE Nepal’s integrated development projects incorporate healthcare, education, livelihood, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and research components to promote holistic development of disadvantaged and vulnerable populations across the country with support from various national and international partners.
PHASE Nepal is conducting a mixed-method implementation study funded by the ARISE Responsive Fund. The project focuses on assessing living conditions, mental health, and accountability in informal settlements in Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The research employs participatory methods, including social mapping, transect walks, stakeholder analysis, and photovoice, with active involvement from coresearchers and the community. Additionally, surveys and in-depth interviews are being conducted for a comprehensive understanding. Our intervention strategies involve sensitisation workshops, accountability initiatives and mental health awareness activities tailored to address specific needs identified within the informal settlements.