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Organizing for Urban Resilience … and, Possibly, for Transformation: TDCs in Bharatpur, Nepal

21 Aug 2017

  • Author(s): Hanna A. Ruszczyk

Organizing for Urban Resilience … and, Possibly, for Transformation: TDCs in Bharatpur, Nepal
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

This think piece explores the role of Tole Development Committees and argues that they make important contributions to urban resilience in Bharatpur, Nepal. In this context, they are sources of innovative local-level partnerships and ways of approaching governance of eco-social issues. As such, they are taking steps towards greater social inclusion and, possibly, transformation.

Hanna A. Ruszczyk is the first postdoctoral research associate of Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience. Her research interests lie in the intersection of cities, risk perceptions, governance, and resilience-building. Her postgraduate research in the Department of Geography focused on risk perceptions in a rapidly urbanizing city of Nepal and how risk perceptions there were impacted by the Gorkha earthquake and change in municipal status. Understanding the links between the everyday and events is essential to understanding how people cope in, as well as change, their urban environment. Her international development work (ILO, UNDP) focusing on small enterprise development gave Hanna the opportunity to work in ten countries and live in several of them before academia. Hanna’s first co-edited book, Evolving narratives of hazard and risk: The Gorkha earthquake, Nepal 2015, will be available in the autumn of 2017.

Bharatpur, an "ordinary" city in many ways

In south central Nepal, bordering India, Bharatpur is a submetropolitan city of 200,000 people. In many ways Bharatpur is an “ordinary” city of the developing world, with significant inward migration and rapidly reconfiguring social networks, as well as deficiencies in the provision of physical infrastructure (such as a lack of regular electricity provision and solid waste management facilities). Places such as Bharatpur are also where almost half of the world’s urban population lives—in cities with less than half a million inhabitants (UN-DESA 2014).

Tole Development Committees (TDCs) grew out of the Rural-Urban Partnership Project initiated in 1997 by UNDP Nepal in Bharatpur and other municipalities. A mechanism to connect residents to local authorities with the goal of supporting sustainable development through good governance, the TDCs had a broad remit focused on poverty reduction (including savings and credit schemes), social development (health, sanitation and pro-poor infrastructure) and local government planning.

In 2002, the prime minister of Nepal dissolved all locally elected bodies and, subsequently, the national parliament. Later in the year, King Gyanendra suspended democratic processes due to the increasing control of local authorities by the opposition forces that were being fought by the government in Nepal’s internal conflict (1996-2006). Locally elected representatives were replaced with officials chosen by the central government based in Kathmandu.

TDCs: Growth from the grassroots since 2007

Since 2002, the lack of elected representation on a municipal level has created an informal yet permanent political “transitional” space. In this space, TDCs became an even more important social and political institution not only for people to voice their concerns and desires to each other and to local authorities, but also through which citizens took direct action to better their urban lives.

The Rural-Urban Partnership Project was concluded in 2007, but the TDCs as a form of urban community organization have continued to flourish in Nepal, with locally driven adjustments. At a minimum, the TDCs are examples of urban resilience; at times, the TDCs strive for transformative change in the urban setting.

“The tole finances construction of roads and gives money to those who have nothing. The tole raised money for the Earthquake victims and sent relief items. Tole also organizes a savings and credit scheme so people are happy”.
-- (A resident of Bharatpur ward 11 describing his tole in September, 2015)

The TDCs serve a range of financial, social and infrastructural roles as can be interpreted from this quote. The TDCs provide financial support to their members and to others in the community who are not members. For example, the toles lend money with a low interest rate to the landless who would otherwise be forced to take exorbitant loans from local landlords. In this way TDCs shift power dynamics at the local level.

After the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, thousands of people evacuated the Kathmandu Valley and travelled through Bharatpur to their permanent homes in the Terai. The TDCs worked side by side with the local authorities to distribute food and water to these travellers thus providing support to strangers in need.

As a result of the TDCs, members have also learned the power of organization and of financial contribution to joint infrastructure projects with the local authority. Of significant importance for many members in both older (UNDP established) and younger (organically established) toles, is the role of toles in infrastructure projects, primarily paving roads. The local authority brings modernity in the form of paved roads to residential areas of the city if two conditions are met: first, there is a tole (with at least 50 households as members) and second, the tole provides approximately 30 percent co-financing for the construction of the proposed paved road.

Due to scare local government finances, the local authority relies on co-financing by citizens for other types of infrastructure projects as well, including drainage pipes and, most recently, street lighting. This collaboration is an effective way to address perceived infrastructural and environmental issues in the city, and it is an urban governance approach that is based on the collective views of residents and local government officials.

TDCs, urban governance, resilience...

In Nepal, where the links between government and citizens are generally informal, the TDCs are a critical form of urban governance that has evolved to respond to emerging urban social-ecological issues. In a culture that historically has been structured based on caste and then income levels, the TDCs are an institutional form of urban resilience—one whereby residents jointly address their perceived everyday risks and simultaneously disrupt caste and income divides.

The TDCs are also a new form of partnering between groups of urban residents who historically may not have interacted together (due to separation based on caste, ethnic and indigenous groups). The urban environment is allowing for innovative inclusive forms of institutions to be developed and enacted. This has the potential to lead to transformative change for urban residents living in Nepal.

At the present time, a tension exists related to the TDCs in terms of membership and ability to influence change. Membership in the TDCs is comprised primarily of homeowners who are self-organizing on a small scale, between 50 and 100 households per tole. House ownership is the first step in order to “be in the light” of the local government, in the words of a newcomer to Bharatpur. House ownership also leads to the creation of essential social connections in the rapidly urbanizing cities of Nepal. And finally, house ownership signifies permanence, a commitment to the city.

The functions of the TDCs vary depending on the length of existence of the TDC, its location in the city, and the affluence and composition of its members. Ward 11, for example, is a rapidly urbanizing area with a population of 20,000. It has many active TDCs comprised of affluent high-caste Brahmin and Chetris homeowners, as well as ethnic and indigenous populations. The TDCs learn from each other and from within the groups on how best to achieve their community selected goals and how to engage with the local government.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are few TDCs in ward 4. This ward is the commercial and transportation centre of Bharatpur. Its population includes Indian labourers, Newari businessmen, high-caste newcomers and landless poor migrants in a small, densely populated ward of 15,000 inhabitants. The residents are not able to organize themselves due to time, social and economic constraints. These residents do not have the networks in place upon which to build urban resilience.

...and transformative change?

The powerful influence of the TDCs has occurred in a context of both locally elected government officials (in the late 1990s) and unelected local government officials (since 2002). In both contexts, the TDCs served a valuable urban resilience role. In May and June 2017, local elections occurred in Nepal for the first time in 20 years. Time will tell whether the TDCs can also be elements of urban transformative change. Bharatpur will be on a promising pathway if the newly elected local government allows TDCs a more formal or permanent space in urban governance, and if urban governance becomes more inclusive. This is an exciting moment in which forms of urban resilience have the potential to lead to urban transformation.


United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (UN-DESA) (2015). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, (ST/ESA/SER.A/366).

Photo: Matt McK (Public Domain via Unsplash)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.