June 21, 2016 Sujeev Shakya

Space and the City

New York City is looking better. The city’s current mayor has been busy leading transformations—from school systems and safety to providing information in 170 languages. The façades of Manhattan buildings are being revamped and many of the train stations are being integrated with new commercial buildings similar to the ones in East Asian cities like Bangkok or Singapore. We do not see such developments in India, on which most our replications are based. In Delhi, there are shopping malls and then there are train stations just 50 meters away. Builders could have been persuaded to collaborate in those projects.

Replicating The Worst

The development of Kathmandu, as Nepal opened up to the world, was based on European cities. The initial set of wealthy tourists visiting Nepal brought with them expectations that they were willing to pay for. A strong café culture developed along with restaurants and shopping centres that were contemporary with what was happening in the rest of Asia. Bishal Bazaar shopping centre was one of the best in South Asia when it was established in the late 1970s.

When road connectivity to the Capital developed rapidly in the 1980s, Kathmandu became a centre of opportunity for not only the people in Nepal, but also from the bordering areas in India. Suddenly its population swelled. The Panchayat era Nagar Panchayats invested little in vision and planning. Land prices started to go up fast and buildings mushroomed on fertile agricultural land.

The rapid urbanisation catalysed by road development was a South Asian phenomenon. Villages converted into towns and towns into cities. The absence of governance and the strong nexus between political forces and real estate developers ensured that cities mushroomed overnight.

With rampant construction, open space became an eyesore for developers and they figured out different permutations and combinations to come up with real estate development. Neither aesthetics nor the existence of utilities mattered. Electricity connections were only available to those who could grease palms, and people were made to believe that water only came in tankers. Sewage and garbage were a caste issue, so no one wanted to even think about them. Like many other parts of the world, we managed to convert the Kathmandu Valley into a concrete dumping site. The view of the Himalayan range, fresh air and open space became a matter of luxury. There was a sudden myopia about the price of land and wealth spiralled due to an increase in asset price. But the need for open spaces, greenery or scenic views was not something that people even thought about.

When the royals themselves started to lease out open spaces for ugly constructions, everyone started to think that was the way to go. Then the future political masters ensured the continuation of this legacy. When one saw Tudhikhel being dotted with the Nepal Army structures, people were made to believe that development meant no open spaces, only urban constructed space. With some of the big real estate folks entering Parliament and law making bodies, more laws friendly to construction emerged.

Now, there is strong competition among the oligarchs in this business, who make sure that every open space becomes real estate booty to encash; it does not matter if the land  belongs to a school or is even a heritage space. Folks lacking an aesthetic sense have been putting up structures that are built replicating the worst structures in the worst cities of South Asia. And this unregulated, rampant urbanisation of Kathmandu has been replicated very well in other cities of Nepal. Bad traffic jams, poor air quality, garbage heaps, parking problems and a lack of open spaces are becoming a problem in every city or town in Nepal.

The automobile business has boomed in Nepal in the past three decades, with private automobiles being pushed at the cost of better public transportation. Parking and traffic jams have become nightmares. I watch development workers who propagate messages on good governance and spend millions, but do not batter an eyelid to eat in a restaurant that has no parking. They do not mind parking their bikes or cars on the main or side streets. Managing urbanisation does not seem to be a concern in the country.

Strong Local Governments

While the government is converting villages into municipalities at a rapid pace, it also needs to look at strong governance structures in these municipalities. It is important that these municipalities have a long-term vision. In Rwanda, the capital city has a Master Plan 2040, which is also being replicated  in other cities and towns. The plan is an excellent example of how a third world city can have first world cleanliness, greenery and open spaces.

Kathmandu direly needs a similar plan. Cities in many parts of the world have undergone tremendous makeover and transformation by cleaning rivers, creating more open spaces and ensuring that tree plantation ceremonies lead to trees growing tall.

Local elections are inevitable; it is only a matter of when. Perhaps, the starting point for the new political forces like Bibeksheel Party and Baburam Bhattarai’s Naya Shakti would be to field good candidates who can become city mayors. If they can prove their mettle by bringing order to the fast-growing urban sprawl, it could be a stepping-stone for them in go into national politics.

The starting point could be a moratorium on leasing land that belongs to the government, semi-government agencies or guthis so that we can save whatever open spaces we have in our cities. The newly established parties can perhaps start a campaign that will touch the hearts of many Nepalis.

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