On The Way Up

From HIMAL, Volume 5, Issue 1 (JAN/FEB 1992)

The beauty, the cultural strengths, and the very many charms of Kathmandu Valley are all givens. Poets, essayists and travel writers have been extremely kind to our “Nepal Valley” over the years, and we felt no need here in the pages of Himal to further gild the lily. In this special issue on the Valley, we have chosen instead to take a long look at how it is run and what challenges it faces. And it is clear, to us, that the cauldron of Kathmandu is reaching boiling point, or is leaking badly. One of the two.

The rich Newar culture of the Valley towns, which all Nepal claims as its own with pride, is in peril. As Nepalis of different ethnic backgrounds move in from hill and Tarai, many Newar and non-Newar well-to-do are engaged in suburban flight. Towards the end of his lead article, Sudarshan Tiwari suggests that incoming migrants should have been able to fit into the existing cultural mould of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu — but this has not happened.

In the absence of political fail-safe mechanisms, such as decision-making powers vested in local communities, the voracious needs of the city pauperises the poor of the periphery. In the case of the Valley, this cruel fact of urban development finds recognition in the articles on the Valley´s rural space and on the rim-dwellers of Shivapuri ridge. Inadequate response of government to obvious wrong turns in the Valley´s development is clear from the write-ups on land taxation, housing and “master planning”.

The powerful, democratically-elected Nepali Congress administration seems without when it comes to tackling urban growth. It is business as usual in the ministries. Bureaucrats rule the roost because the politicians, for all their years spent in jail, in exile, or underground, seem unable to provide the required courage, vision and administrative prowess. From the numerous times the term “expatriate consultant” crops up in these pages, the reader will know whose advice we follow. The Government gets the quality of “expert” studies it deserves; it is too weak to direct and monitor donor-assigned consultants. Basing itself on their reports, the Government continues to opt for externally-funded quick-fixes, such as the Melamchi Project.

Once, we thought our Valley was “different” and would somehow be spared the problems of Third World urbanisation. The past decade has proved otherwise, and our response is inadequate. Kathamandu lacks the strength of working political institutions and an aware, organised and united citizenry. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that cement factory, strategically placed at the Valley´s atmospheric funnel, has continued to spew smoke and dust for 17 years without any pollution control in place. How did we allow sand mining to rob our only river down to its earthen bed? We have not learnt the significance of carcinogenic particles suspended in the air, chemical substances leaching into the land.

Where, in all of this, are the people? Slow to rise from the slumber of Panchayat, the public are not yet able to recognise, and organise against, obvious threats to health, environment, livelihood and culture. Sunderlal Bahuguna was in town recently, and preached the benefits of activism, but activism can never be jump-started. What seems like extreme public apathy is really the lack of information and awareness. “Enlightened activism” and a well-informed public are essential for the Valley´s future, says the article which analyses the experience of Doon Valley.

Such activism of course, must come from concerned communities and not be a result of political manipulation. We will be making headway when the Chobar villagers, rather than twice-removed urban environmentalists, stand up against Himal Cement; when the residents of the city core organise for cleaner water; and when the displaced dwellers of Shivapuri feel confident enough to march down to the Valley to demand fairness rather than quietly join the ranks of the lagada cart pushers.

Kathmandu Valley, the largest and most accomplished of urban centers in the Himalayan region, is well-placed geo-politically to become a hub for all of South Asia. It is already the best- connected city for inter-regional travel no other can boast of direct air links to Calcutta, Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi, Lhasa, Paro and (come March) Bombay. Telecommunications is arguably the best in South Asia. The Valley´s role as the economic powerhouse of Nepal will continue to grow as the national economy becomes more “integrated”.

Kathmandu Valley must mend its ways if it is to take advantage of the possibility of developing as a major regional and national center. Present trends, as highlighted by writers in this special issue on the Valley, do not inspire optimism. Perhaps, as Bijaya Lal Shrestha writes in his piece on tourism, we will surprise ourselves?

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