"Bikash bhannu arthik kura matra hoina. Eutaa maanawiya samasyaa ho"-Shree Panch Birendra ("Development is not only about economics. It is a human problem"-His Majesty King Birendra)
One of several mahawanis, or 'Great Sayings' put up at the busy intersection of Tripureswor, the installation of faded letters, peeling paint and rusted tin is overshadowed by huge hoardings screaming Pan Parag Pan Masala and Caravan Premium whisky. In the background, a jumble of other signs jostle for space. They advertise everything from tandoori to tutorials.
As commerce overwhelms the Nepali capital, Kathmandu's skyline and its busy intersections have become an unsightly canvas for advertisers keen to draw an undiscerning public's gaze to their products. While temple tops struggle to be seen behind brands of bottled beverages, cigarettes and home appliances at Thapathali junction, in neighbouring Tripureswor, King Birendra's 'words of wisdom' are visibly choked by coke, beer, and whisky.
Kamasutra condoms, Close-up toothpaste and Konica films occupy three layers of wall space at Bhadrakali Temple complex-a landmark in the city's centre. Drive or walk from Tripureswor to Ranipokhari and loud banners on overhead bridges sponsored by the Hotel Association Nepal shout the obvious-help keep the city clean-little realising that they are eyesores and driving distractions the city can do without.
The private sector is not the only polluter. The city's Traffic Police puts up its traffic signs everywhere conceding little to aesthetics. Despite its being illegal, parties splash graffiti on walls that are public (and private) property.
Renchin Yonjan has been involved with Kathmandu city beautification projects for the last few years, trying to salvage what she can from a city that's fast turning into a commercial jungle. "It's appalling how visual pollution is becoming permissible," she says. "We want to promote Kathmandu as a heritage site, we invite tourists to Shangri-la but what we have is a jungle of TV antennae and half-finished constructions, above which hoardings loom. Of course, advertising products and putting up traffic signs is important. But with some planning, we can find places for commerce without destroying the city skyline."
The Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) says it's making the best of a bad situation. But there are no guidelines in place and so no real way of controlling the menace. Even worse, there's no real sense that this is a real problem. Hoardings fall under the jurisdiction of the Security Section of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, a group of city policepersons responsible for enforcing rules and regulations, from collecting revenue from advertisers to chasing off small shop owners from the pavements. And, occasionally, they go around the city and pull down hoardings from places they're not supposed to be in, like Tundikhel, Singha Darbar, the area around the Royal Palace, and 100 m around Heritage Sites like Basantapur.
Anywhere else, hoardings can be put up with impunity-for a price though. The city cops can take down hoardings that haven't been paid for. Advertisers are required to pay an annual fee of Rs 60 per sq foot for a regular hoarding, while neons cost Rs 75 per sq foot. A 16 sq foot glow sign costs Rs 500, and every additional sq foot costs Rs 75. To put up a 3x3 film poster costs Rs 100 a week. Anything bigger costs Rs 500. After the government banned alcohol and tobacco advertisements in the national media, companies have turned to hoardings, even though such ads are charged 50 percent extra by the City.
What is positively depressing is how many walls of residences, colleges and guthis are given over to the persuasive power of moolah. If you want to advertise on private space, all you need to do is contact the owners, negotiate a rate with them, and then, if you're conscientious, go to the City. As long as the guthi or the homeowner doesn't have a problem, neither does the city, unless the ad encroaches on public space, is a driving distraction, or "is bad for tourism". The KMC even offers a 20 percent discount if you advertise on private property. "We can't tell people what to do with their private property, but we can make the most of the situation and charge taxes," says Dhanapati Sapkota, an enforcement officer with KMC.
Last fiscal year, the City collected around Rs 2.2 million as fee from hoardings, and expects the amount to go up this year. Advertisers who used to pay Rs 3000- 4000 for a hoarding are willing to pay over Rs 35,000 to ensure that their (usually uninspired) advertising is visible. "The city increased the rates to discourage advertisers. But they keep coming," says Kedar Karki, another KMC official. "Unless there's a master plan which clearly defines what is legal, this unplanned mess will continue." Of course, the revenue collected isn't all that much for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City with its annual budget of over Rs 1 billion. Still, even the money so collected could be put to better use, for instance, for the Kathmandu beautification project.