development | cities | history | ethnography | communities

Tharu boys with drums and peacock feathers dancing on the Rapti River Road (E-W Highway) stopping traffic during Holi. About 6 km east of Narayanghat | 1967. Photo by Dave Hohl,  Nepal Photo History Project
Tharu boys with drums and peacock feathers dancing on the Rapti River Road (E-W Highway) stopping traffic during Holi. About 6 km east of Narayanghat | 1967. Photo by Dave Hohl, Nepal Photo History Project


The Chitwan Chronicle: The Rapti Valley Development Project and Tharus

An account of developments that shaped Nepal’s third-most populated city

By Saaid Koirala |

The story of Chitwan is one of complex social, political, and environmental change, shaped by global forces and local actors. The transformation of the region has been driven by a range of factors, including the desire for modernisation and development, the spread of disease, and the influence of global and local economic and political forces; including the cold war. A decade of social engineering led to rapid transformations that made Chitwan the tourism hub it is today. This piece will dive into those transformations — the good and the bad parts.

After Chitwan,  previously a part of the Makwanpur kingdom, was annexed to Nepal, it was recognised for its ecological diversity and wildlife. While Bhimsen Thapa, Nepal’s first Prime Minister, made constant attempts to preserve the space, the Shah kings fancied it as more of a hunting arena. 

On one such hunting endeavor, a wild elephant went rogue and that was when Jung Bahadur Rana, a soldier then, stepped in and took control of the elephant. Impressed by his gallantry, the king appointed Jung Bahadur as the prince’s bodyguard. 

After a series of unfortunate events that ensued, Jung Bahadur became Nepal’s Prime Minister and thus started the Rana regime (1846 - 1951). During his time as the Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur made diplomatic ties with the British Kingdom and started a generations-long practice of inviting British guests including King Edward VII and King George V to hunt at Chitwan with Ranas and Shahs. 

On his hunting escapade, King Edward alone killed 23 Bengal tigers. To put this in context, Chitwan today has 128 Bengal tigers in total; and that is after the number has tripled since 2010. 

The Tharu community, who have inhabited the region for centuries, were dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, engaging in activities such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. They had a rich and complex religious belief system that incorporated elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. The Tharus also believed in spirits (bhoot and pret) which were thought to inhabit trees, rocks, and other natural features. Their culture revolved around reverence to nature in its unbridled components which is why large scale urbanisation presented a threat to their lifestyle. 

The Tharu Village of Chitwan was infested with Malaria. In turn, as the Tharu had lived with the disease for so many generations, they had developed genetic and acquired immunities, enabling them to reside in the valley year-round while hill denizens kept their distance, visiting only during January and February. This prevented Chitwan from gentrification and other exploitative invasions. As such, Malaria and Tharus had a codependent relation. 

During the winter, when the rivers shrank, the mud dried, and the malaria dropped off, Rana potentates organised extravagant month-long hunting parties, attended by an army of porters, beaters, attendants, musicians, and dancers. This was also a part of the reason the development of the valley was blocked until the 1950s. These hunts also depended on Tharu labor, with little to no compensation. While malaria did mostly keep trespassers off the Tharu land, it was also a major cause of sickness and, in rare instances, death, among Tharus. As ULRIKE MÜLLER-BÖKER writes in his book ‘The Chitawan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Ethnoecological Approach’:

The results of a study conducted in Chitawan in 1925 (cited in: DUVE, 1985) may, with certain methodological reservations, be read as inborn immunity. There it was concluded that the mortality rate of Tharu children from one to six years in age was considerably lower than that of children of the same age among newly settled families (17% among the Tharus, and 44% among the new immigrants).

Fast forward to 1951, the Rana fiefdom was overthrown and replaced with what was a somewhat more democratic practice. Around the same time, DDT or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, the insecticide used to combat malaria, was developed. This was fueled by the tensions between the USSR and the USA during the cold war which led to a period of rapid development throughout the globe.  The Rapti Valley Development Project (RVDP), an initiative of USAID, was one such large-scale development project that was implemented in Chitwan in the mid-20th century. King Mahendra, who was the ruler at the time, happily welcomed such development projects. The project aimed to transform the region into a modern, industrialised agricultural center.

USAID jeep crossing the Rapti River near Bhalu Khola | 1967. Photo by Dave Hohl,  Nepal Photo History Project

Overnight, trees were cut down, roads were built, malaria was gone, and agriculture was modernised with advanced equipment. By the mid 1960s, hordes of people from all over the country had started migrating to Chitwan en masse. 

Prior to RVDP, Tharus lived in a feudal economy where there was a distinction between landowners and farmers. Landowners were typically members of the Tharu aristocracy, who held significant political power within the community, while farmers were often tenants who worked the land owned by the aristocracy. The relationship between landowners and farmers was often exploitative, with the landowners taking a significant portion of the crops grown by the farmers as rent. 

Crane loading sal (Shorea Robusta) logs onto a truck to be hauled to Hetauda. Trees are being cut at Bhalu Khola in the Rapti Valley for the Timber Corporation of Nepal sawmill in Hetauda. The crane operator is an ex-Gurkha which is where he learned to operate the equipment | 1967| Photo by Dave Hohl,  Nepal Photo History Project

Despite these tensions, the Tharu community had a strong sense of collective ownership of the land and because there were many landowners, farmers could also opt for another job in the event that their landowner mistreated them. Nonetheless, there was still a strong sense of community in the region. 

After Chitwan was opened, Tharus, uneducated and less worldly, lost more and more of their land to the new Bahun and Chhetri migrants of the region. Almost overnight, in-migration turned the Tharu into minorities in their own home-land. 

Here is an excerpt from ‘DDT and the cold war jungle: American environmental and social engineering in the Rapti valley of Nepal” by Thomas b. Robertson lamenting the change in land ownership:

In 1955 nearly 100 percent of the population were Tharu; in 1970, that figure was only about 14 percent. One elderly Tharu summarised this decade of vast demographic, political, and cultural changes—and her alienation from Nepal—by saying, simply, “The Nepalis came.”

Of all the changes the Tharu faced, nothing proved as devastating as the new land dynamics. Because of the RVDP, land ownership suddenly became far more crucial than when malaria, wild animals, and labor scarcity had made land easily available. Some Tharu landed on their feet, particularly large landholders. Literate and more worldly, this elite found ways to assert their interests. “When the local people saw all these new people coming in,” a late 1950s U.S. report explained, “they began to worry about their grazing land and the possibility for future expansion. In order to try to hold this land, they began settlement on their own.” Eventually, they registered land in their own names. In later decades, many found influence within local political parties.

At least some former tenants acquired land from the RVDP. Tharu interviewees remember that the RVDP tried to give landless Tharu tenants land. “[RVDP director] Malla used to say,” one man told me, “‘Send your people. I’ll give the Tharu land first.’” Another re- counted how Malla often gathered tenants to tell them to take land because “another era is about to begin.” Sometimes the large landholders put land in tenants’ names, or pushed them to get RVDP land. Some tenants applied on their own, such as twenty-eight-year-old “Issor Man” Mahato and his brother, who each received three hectares (almost 7.5 acres) from the RVDP in 1956. Issor Man sold a small parcel of this plot thirty years later when his wife fell ill but otherwise still owns the land. “Next to my wedding day,” he told me,“the happiest day of my life was the day I received land from the RVDP.” Unfortunately, few records exist to show how many Tharu tenants received land.

Arjun Guneratne, the leading scholar on the Rapti Tharu, calls this “voluntary landlessness.” “Prior to the malaria eradication program,” he writes, “land had been virtually unlimited. Any Tharu who wanted land could have it. Even the servant class followed that occupation more by choice than necessity; their limited wants could be met by working for others and they thereby avoided the onerous responsibilities.” Even as conditions changed, Tharu tenants avoided what they saw as the burdens of land ownership. “Big Tharu landholders understood land,” one landholder explained, “but no one else.” Only later did Tharu tenants realize their mistake. “By the time we got awareness about the import of land,” one elderly Tharu woman announced, “It was all gone.” “Now,” another lamented, “we don't have even a spot to plant a walking stick.”

Another adversity that RVDP brought about was mass deforestation and loss of natural habitat. As a way to counter this, Chitwan National Park was established in 1973. While the park did conserve wildlife, its policies and regulations limited the Tharu community's access to the forest and its resources, constricting potential for activities such as hunting and gathering, which were traditional practices for them. The park authorities saw the Tharu community's dependence on the forest as a threat to the park's conservation efforts, as their activities could potentially damage the park's environment and its wildlife. 

Furthermore, the Tharu community's settlement patterns were seen as a potential threat to the park's conservation efforts. The Tharu community traditionally lived in small villages scattered throughout the forest, which were deemed as potential encroachment on the park's boundaries. On the flip side, the Park was a frontier for tourism - now a huge source of income in Chitwan. 

Men hoeing farm fields near Narayanghat | 1970. Photo by Bill Hanson, Nepal Photo History Project

Tharus were thus alienated from their land and their culture. The Tharus that live in Chitwan today exist in all social classes, rich and poor. While some managed to get a hold of land and property, others relied on farming for sustenance and while that was feasible in the short term, their standard of living drastically reduced with time. Some Tharus are involved in tourism, others preservation of the environment.

The question of whether RVDP was a net benefit or not for Tharus still remains up for debate. In Robertson’s words:

That said, the meaning of new technologies, economic productivity, environmental transformation—and even of eradicating a deadly disease—depended upon the eyes of the beholder. One elderly Tharu woman named “Babana” stressed the rvdp’s mixed results. Life had been hard for women before the 1950s, she told me. Then the rvdp brought health programs and schools. Malaria control, she emphasized, also improved conditions. Babies had been particularly vulnerable: immunities had never meant complete protection.

“In hundreds of villages,” a journalist noted in 1962, “the child population was destined for malaria in their first year of life as surely as if the mosquitoes flew in with a list of names of the newly-born.” Of course, babies in Nepal died of many causes, and it was often hard to tell the exact cause. But malaria killed both directly and indirectly, by exposing babies to other maladies. “Babies,” Babana explained, “would be born, and then they’d die. Be born, then die. Be born, then die.” “We were in the dark before,” she said, but through the rvdp “we got to see a little light.” Then, she added, “Of course, most of it was in other people’s hands.”

As for Chitwan, well, it lives on, and continues to adapt to the changing economic landscape. In recent decades, the region has seen a significant shift away from traditional subsistence agriculture and towards other economic activities, including hospitality and tourism, commercial agriculture, and manufacturing. 

The growth of the tourism industry has brought significant investment to the region, with new hotels, restaurants, and other tourist infrastructure being developed. This has generated employment opportunities and sources of income for Tharus and non-Tharus alike and, in ways more than one, developed the region. 

Saaid Koirala is an aspiring journalist.

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