A Saarc to-do list

From The Kathmandu Post (28 August, 2014)

While diplomats set the formal agenda, we must use the Saarc Summit to improve Valley’s public spaces

The run-up to a Saarc summit is the time to build, spruce up and beautify the host city, like the Olympics, World Cups, Asiads and even something as relatively insipid as the Commonwealth Games of 2010. That is what Sheila Dixit did for New Delhi as its chief minister, even while the rest of us were scratching our heads about all the ho-halla regarding an event so mundane.

What these grand events do is allow the government and civil society to unite to accelerate matters, making positive use of populism, regard for urban heritage, nationalist pride, etc. to override obstructions in the improvement of urban services and infrastructure. These impediments can include budgetary constraints, bureaucratic ennui, political rivalries, community resistance and the play of mafia and syndicates.

Best foot forward

To begin with, despite the overall sense of despondency and even desperation, Nepalis have much to show off to the rest of South Asia. We can therefore look to the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) with genuine anticipation, to display our wares, so to speak. Despite some dangers that loom, we remain arguably the most open society in South Asia, in terms of ownership of communitarian diversity, space for activism, freedom of media, and so on.

In terms of recent achievement, no country in the subcontinent can match our FM radio revolution, community forestry advance, the role of female auxiliary health workers, specific social indicators that refuse to be suppressed by political disarray, the successful return to elected democracy, the definitive, though extended, end to conflict, and so on. For all that has gone wrong or continues to fester, Kathmandu can be a proud host to the presidents and prime minister of Saarc—we have not yet succumbed to the fatalism evident in so many other democratic places.

There is, of course, the other side of the coin, with the challenges that beset constitution-writing, governance and service delivery. The Sushil Koirala-led Nepali Congress-CPN-UML coalition is so lacking in dash and dynamism that one trembles even to make recommendations on using the Saarc Summit to put Nepal’s best foot forward. The visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was like a test run for the Saarc Summit, and we can expect that the tendency will be towards band-aid beautification—some potholes filled, dividers removed, garbage collected, loadshedding temporarily lifted, and saplings planted along the main thoroughfares and at crossings.

As far as Saarc is concerned, even the beautification must be permanent, and urban infrastructure, services and open spaces must be developed as much as possible over the next three months. Without doubt, naysayers and obstructionists will crawl out of the woodwork, and it is against them that the Saarc Summit has to be used to good effect. The trick is to work with community leaders, in the absence of elected local representatives at the ward level, so as to get quick local buy-in while preventing needless harm.

Maitighar Mandal

For those who find the Maitighar Mandal roundabout attractive in a city of grubby crossroads, know that it came up in an area that was visually hideous, until Mayor Keshav Sthapit converted the area in preparation for the 11th Saarc Summit in January 2002. Here are a few (necessarily random) big and small doable suggestions to improve our infrastructure, public spaces and environment so that the urban-dwellers of the Valley can benefit permanently from the 18th Saarc Summit of November 26-27, 2014.

TINKUNE TRIANGLE: It should be possible to convert this entry-point for air travellers to the Valley into a fine park populated with raithaney (local) species of bushes and trees amidst inviting walkways. The trees will take time to grow, but there are enough months left to build pleasant lawns and walkways—providing a soothing welcome to international visitors of Saarc and beyond.

DE-SYNDICATED TRANSPORT: The Supreme Court has held that bus cartels are illegal and the public in unison demands better public transport. This requires the Department of Transport Management to be a regulatory body, rather than the licencing entity it serves as today. Use the Saarc momentum to make it happen, even if the transport network will not be all in place by November.

FLAGS AND LAMPPOSTS: Solar lighting is diversionary. For the sake of public safety and the rise of a healthy night-time economy, rejig electricity distribution so that the main thoroughfares at least are lit from the NEA grid. Even if this adds half-an-hour to overall loadshedding in the Valley, it would be a small price to pay. And if we must put up flags of the Saarc countries at the crossings, then erect healthy flagstaffs rather than the sickly looking posts of today with their rickety sticks on which the pennants droop.

CLEAN AIRPORT: As for Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), use some crores of our own money (rather than waiting for donor sanction) to take taxiways to the end of the runaway on both ends so that time is saved on take-offs and landings. This simple bit of work will ease air traffic considerably and make Kathmandu more attractive for airlines and travellers alike. And TIA must do water harvesting to ensure that the toilets of our only international airport do not lack for water—no other place has so much area to collect rainwater, all you need are sizeable tanks.

DILLIBAZAR STRETCH: The traditional artery from city to airport used to be Bagbazaar-Dillibazaar-Baneswor, sadly allowed to wither after the Chinese-built access road bypassed the entire area. How about revitalising this road in time for Saarc, a whole new section of old suburban Kathmandu that is ripe and ready for urban renewal?

CREMATE! CREMATE! Get the Pashupati Crematorium working by Novem-ber, using the Saarc Summit momentum to overcome the cultural-communitarian obstructions that may come up. When we depart, as we all must, we can do it in style rather than serve as spectacle for tourist telephotos and a source of pollution for dear Bagmati.

BAGMATI PROMENADE: Even as the weekly Bagmati cleanup heroically continues, it is important to focus on building long-term stakeholders for the campaign. While we all hope that the sewerage lines being laid will actually work, let us use the next quarter-year to encourage heritage preservation of the ghats along the riverbanks and build permanent parks (by excavating the garbage, not covering it up with some earth). The Bagmati Heritage Walk being promoted by Kathmandu Metropolitan City must be made a reality by November, providing walking space, preserving temple-scapes and establishing parkland.

BILLBOARDS OUT: One fine day last autumn, the hideous surround-all hoarding boards of Kathmandu city miraculously disappeared—someone did something right and  it needs to be recognised. The Saarc Summit is the excuse to ensure that the same evisceration happens across the river in Lalitpur as well, and all over the Valley.

GALLERY BAITHAK: In the new republic, we have gone overboard with the abandonment of pomp and ceremony, and it’s time to revive some. Why not restore the great hall of Singha Durbar, the Gallery Baithak, which Chandra Shumsher built as a grand place for state occasions. This is where the banquet for visiting Saarc dignitaries could be held, rather than at a five-star hotel ballroom, in which you could be in Vanuatu as much as in Kathmandu.

There is much more that needs doing over the next three months, but is there anyone listening? Under ideal conditions, a minister with enough clout and imagination would simply take over the Saarc preparations and take Kathmandu at least a step towards evolving as a clean, healthy, considerate and people-friendly ‘international city’. This would be one subject where all-party consensus would not be difficult to achieve, one should think.


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