The streets of Kathmandu yesterday looked like a set of a western movie just before the high noon showdown — shuttered and quiet at midday in the June heat. The reason: Nepal's dominant ethnic group had called for a general strike to press for their demand to declare Kathmandu an autonomous region.

Until about 240 years ago the Nawar people ruled the Kathmandu valley, and on this, the one-year anniversary of the killing of the Nepali royal family, they insist on getting it back. Given the past months dramatic political dueling between the democratically elected Maoist Prime Minister, backed by his party, and the Army Chief, backed by President, it might actually be the most peaceful solution.

But the Nawars have other reasons for wanting their autonomy: they hope to stop the uncontrolled migration of people from other parts of Nepal and to protect the culture, environment and natural resources of the region.

According to the eight Nawar groups behind the strike, the migration to Kathmandu will increase the 3 million population by 50 per cent in the near future, if nothing is done. They warn of escalating pollution in the valley and emerging water crisis.

Today, as the streets clouded over with thick smoke from cars and mopeds, stench from open sewers and millions of people squeezing past each other, it is easy to understand Nawar concerns.

Project

The majority of India's water sources are polluted. A lack of access to safe water contributes to a fifth of its communicable diseases. Each day in the booming, nuclear-armed nation, diarrhea alone kills more than 1,600 people.

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