12-18 January 2018 #892

Guns into malls

Nepal Army demolishes historic hospital to make way for commercial complex
Rameshwar Bohara

Pic: Bikram Rai
A new controversial nine-storey commercial building built by the Nepal Army has replaced the Tri Chandra Military Hospital (below), which was ritain’s gift to Nepal for the sacrifices of Gurkha soldiers during World War I.

Of the 90,000 Nepali soldiers sent to fight in the First World War, 20,000 never returned. Many more were wounded. As a symbol of gratitude for that sacrifice, Britain used its Post-War Reconstruction Fund to help build the Tri-Chandra Military Hospital in Kathmandu.

The imposing neo-classical structure impressed Perceval Landon, who wrote in his book Nepal that even architects in Calcutta were envious of Kathmandu. For 85 years after it was built in 1925, the statue of the marching soldier atop the hospital became an iconic part of the Kathmandu skyline.

Just before the 2015 earthquake, however, the Nepal Army started demolishing the building saying it was going to replace it with a modern, bigger non-profit hospital with the same name for the treatment of serving personnel, veterans and civilians. 

But even as the facade of the new building sheds its scaffolding, the Army asked for bids to rent out the business complex. Of the 315,000 sq ft of the new building, a 275,000 sq ft area is being offered for commercial rental with only 9.5% of floor space set aside for clinics. 

The Army had already shifted Tri-Chandra Military Hospital to its Chhauni base and merged it with the Birendra Military Hospital in 1990, and the intriguing question then was why it planned another large hospital in the middle of the city. 

Nepal Army sources told us the new building was never intended to be a hospital — that was just a camouflage. “Even now, they have added the clinics so that there won’t be any allegations that the Army is getting into the real estate business,” said the source.

Pic: Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya

The construction was financed with a Rs 2 billion investment from the Army Welfare Fund, which is made up of contributions from, among others, the salaries of Nepal Army U.N. peacekeepers in war zones around the world. The Fund currently has nearly Rs 40 billion in savings which it uses in health, education, charity work and housing for retired soldiers.

Army spokesperson Nainraj Dahal admits: “The main military hospital is in Chhauni, and it was appropriate to use the building in the city centre for commercial purposes to generate revenue for the Fund.”

The Army hasn’t complied with existing rules for building permits from the Municipality. In fact, it never bothered to get necessary building design approval. When construction started, the Municipality wrote to Army Headquarters and the Defence Ministry twice, but the letters were ignored. “They didn’t even verbally acknowledge our letters,” recalls Ram Bahadur Thapa of the Municipality’s Building Permits Office.

To be sure, some military structures do not need approvals because their designs are classified for security reasons. But a hospital in the middle of the city need not have been shrouded in such high secrecy. However, the basic dimensions of such buildings require formal consent from the Municipality. Any new structure also needs a completion certificate from the city for electricity, water and other utilities, which the Army hasn’t bothered to get either. 

The Nepal Army has also violated the Building Code which does not allow structures more than five floors in the congested city core. The military’s commercial complex is 9 stories high with basement parking. Says Thapa: “Because the Army is getting away with it, others putting up illegal structures are saying you punish the Army first.”

The new building was originally designed to be 14 stories high, and the foundation was laid accordingly. But when the 2015 earthquake struck during construction, the design was scaled down, the Army says, because it did not look commercially viable. 

We asked Ram Bahadur Kunwar of the Department of Archaeology how such a historic building was allowed to be pulled down to make way for a mall. His reply: “We found out only after the hospital was demolished.”

The Army’s construction also needs an Emergency Response Plan, according to a new zoning and safety guidelines for public buildings drawn up by the Local Development Ministry after the earthquake, which it does not have.

Says advocate Srihari Aryal of Transparency International Nepal: “It was bad enough to bring down a heritage structure, but it is a complete no-no to build a commercial complex in that space. Unilateral decisions like this by the Army also weakens democracy.”

Centre for Investigative Journalism

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