Mayor Prem Suwal of Bhaktapur isn't the kind of mayor that one would expect to meet in a city with a success story to relate. He doesn't go around in a fancy car, and he doesn't make reckless promises. Being down to earth is his style.
Running a city that is a living museum and heritage site is one thing, being successful at preserving the cultural traditions is quite another. Bhaktapur has been acclaimed for its conservation efforts. This is thanks not just to the motivated citizens of Bhaktapur, but also to the municipality which in other cities tends to be driven by megalomania (check out the monstrous building the municipality of Patan built for itself).
"The hardest part was making people understand why we needed to preserve what is left, that it wasn't just my city or your city but our city. Once they understood this, everybody cooperated," explains Suwal, letting us in on the secret of his success.
The mayor is modest, as we soon find out. An intermediate in mechanical engineering, Suwal's political career took root when he joined the Nepal Revolutionary Students Union in 1978. He joined the Central Committee of the Nepal Workers' and Peasants' Party (NWPP) as a member in 1991 and worked as its secretary from 1994-1996. Steeped in politics, his affiliation with the NWPP would one day make him mayor of the city he loves so much.
An important feature is Suwal's move to make the city's activities transparent. The city makes public even the minutest details of its financial statements. Last year, the Berlin-based Transparency International awarded Bhaktapur the title of 'Island of Integrity' at the international anti-Corruption Conference in Durban. It seems municipality officials and citizens of Patan and Kathmandu have a lot to learn from Bhaktapur.