August 18, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Urban Nightmare

On a recent trip to Kamalpokhari, I noticed new construction underway alongside the pond, which apparently belongs to a club. Thereafter, on my trip to Swayambhu, I noticed that multiple new structures had emerged in the parking area and by the roadside. In other places, tea shops use the entire sidewalk by putting up benches and encourage two-wheelers to park. After the widening of the roads, in my own area in Patan, the new roads are now cluttered with vegetable vendors, tea stalls and vehicular parking. Rather than easing the drive from home to Patan Dhoka, the congestion is a nightmare. If the purpose of widening the roads is to accommodate illegal stalls and parking, I would have preferred the roads in my area to stay as they were. Nearly all of this would not have been possible without paying protection money. And how can you take protection money without being protected by political forces? So it is time to ponder if this is the sustainable way of developing Nepal.

Proximity to Power

I have often wondered why the elections of a local club are so important to people that they  actually spend money to get elected. Local clubs are nothing but large asset management companies that own major properties in many parts of the country. In Nepal, the concept of private land is new. Earlier, land belonged to the rulers, who could bestow it upon chosen subjects. Clubs created by those chosen subjects initially received land to build temples, libraries, reading centres and places for social or cultural interaction.

With time, the clubs realised that they were sitting on precious pieces of real estate and a rent-seeking mindset pushed clubs to build structures and rent or lease out the property. Deals always create money-making opportunities, thereby making positions in many of these organisations lucrative. Local politics also derives its patronage and funding from such activities, which makes it paramount to continue protecting them.

Earlier, proximity to the palace and courtiers ensured protection. Now, it is up to politicians who brilliantly work with life to silence dissent. As the government is currently looking at laws to regulate and monitor foreign assistance, INGOs and NGOs, it should also consider taking a bit of a risk and formulating laws to regulate these clubs, which may at times be protected by members of the current coalition. This will also ensure that the clubs do real work and can be distinguished, promoted and rewarded.

Regulating Construction

It seems as though we can only work if there is donor funding. Everyone loves to talk about disaster preparation and management because there is a lot of money pouring in for this. If we can ensure proper regulations and enforce them, a disaster management system will be automatically built. For instance, if we focus on ensuring that people drink water by first boiling and then testing the water they are drinking, they will not have to administered medicines for water-borne diseases. But since there is more money in selling medicines, we forget to talk of clean drinking water.

Similarly, we have focused the discourse on disaster preparedness, rather than enforcing urban planning. I keep wondering about the capabilities of these organisations working on disaster preparedness. Some of them take months just to draw up consulting contracts. So how they will respond when disasters actually happen? Multilateral and bilateral agencies can really help by pushing real urban planning and a management discourse, rather than focusing on some ‘feel good’ issues.

Mayors and Councils

The country, due to the foresight of its political leaders, only saw city mayors work for less than a decade post 1990. Then, local governments were dissolved by the Nepali Congress government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba. Now, for nearly a decade and a half, urban development is being led by the whims and fancies of people who are close to power centres and more recently, work with the consortium of the political parties post 2006. Buildings are constructed without approval. Hotel permits are given to structures where fire engine can never reach, flouting all safety laws. Hospitals co-exist with watering holes. The biggest hoarding boards outside religious places are of alcohol products. Educational institutions can be set up anywhere and parking for two-wheelers on the street and student movement snarl traffic. Construction materials can be dumped anywhere. Banquet halls and party palaces can block roads. The list is endless. But perhaps those travelling in vehicles with red-lights flashing and sirens blaring have not noticed this.

While travelling to tourism centres, I wondering how many times a Tourism Minister or bureaucrats associated with the Ministry actually visit these places? Or is it the job of a Federal Ministry or the bureaucracy to ensure that city planning goes well? The Kathmandu Valley is a metropolis today, with over four million people, and the population is doubling every decade. We need a more focused approach to develop it. We may have never believed in the concept of mayors, but there is no escaping the concept of having a city mayor and a city council to run a city that accounts for 70 percent of the national economy. The time has come to create a mechanism by establishing an entity that comprises of all parliamentarians/Constituent Assembly members from the Kathmandu Valley. This could be led by someone like Gagan Thapa. All the functioning of the municipalities can be brought under this institution, until we go for local elections and elect mayors. A group of these parliamentarians should focus on their constituencies and design a mechanism to ensure that proper regulations are enforced, more taxes are collected and citizens enjoy a better quality of life.

After piloting this initiative in the Kathmandu Valley, similar mechanisms can be then introduced across all urban centres in Nepal.

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