ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dalal Middlemen and Peri-urbanisation in Nepal

In the rapid urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley’s periphery, the practices and logics of dalal middlemen are fundamental to the uneven transformation of land from agricultural to residential uses. Far more than just mediating urban change for personal profit, this ethnographic portrait of dalals illustrates their active role in producing an emerging peripheral locality through engagement with local demands, a detached state, and the growing interest of private capital.

The author would like to thank Heather Hindman, Andrew Haxby, Sabin Ninglekhu, and Roberto Luis de Melo Monte-Mór for their insights on and conversations about dalals and the Kathmandu land market, and Shubhra Gururani for her feedback on this paper as well as her invitation to participate at the Global Suburbanisms project’s South Asia and After Suburbia conferences.

According to the urban mythology of Kathmandu Valley’s historic Newar cities, the periphery represents a “wild” space of fields and forests, beyond “not just the edge of the city, but the edge of moral order,” where exists “dangerous, chaotic, demonic forces” (Parish 1994: 21–22). Clear ritual and physical markers separate urban space on elevated lands from the lower irrigable lands for food production. However, as the Valley’s population has mushroomed over the last 60 years, the old cities have come to comprise less than 5% of the current urban area (Hollé 2007). The once sparsely inhabited periphery is now characterised by the “mixed spaces” of South Asian peri-urbanism (Dupont 2007), in which one finds residences, factories, and commercial spaces interspersed with farmland. As built-up area displaces agricultural land,1 the Valley has sacrificed its ability to feed itself becoming dependent on imports for three-quarters of its food supply (UNEP 2014). Alongside the physical transformation of the Valley, the social make-up has also shifted from a Newar majority to a predominantly Nepali-speaking population of migrants from the hinterland (Subedi 2010).

To explain the rapid urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley, observers have tended to analyse the cultural practices of migrants, the state’s inability to manage growth, and economic liberalisation. Urban planners, specifically, often target the site-then-service building practices of migrant-dominant localities for how they reverse the appropriate order of a planned city. Instead of establishing infrastructure (service) first, and then houses (site), the typical homeowners buy land, build a house, and then seek out infrastructure. Planners tend to blame the “backward” site-then-service model on the “ignorance” of the periphery’s land brokers, landowners and migrant settlers (Dhakal 2012). The control of non-state actors over peripheral land development is often attributed to a weak state, which has allowed the “haphazard” (Toffin 2007) and “tentacle-like” (Gutschow 2011) urbanisation of the Valley. In particular, many urban elites pinpoint the state’s failures in Nepal’s post-1991 democracy, which has become “synonymous with disorder, greed, corruption, loss and ecological degradation in the capital” (Rademacher 2011: 55). Finally, other studies have drawn attention to how liberalisation has produced suburbs for a consumerist middle class (Liechty 2003: 46–58), privatised urban governance and development (Ninglekhu and Rankin 2009), and created the conditions for urban sprawl (Nelson 2017).

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Updated On : 28th Mar, 2018
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