Development = Destruction

Kickback-driven maldevelopment is destroying Nepal as megalomania and kleptomania go hand-in-hand.

Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Even before the controversy over Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) building football fields in Khula Manch had died down, New Road traders this week closed shutters in protest against the city's street parking ban. 

The two are linked. Mayor Balen Shah’s original plan was to make a three-storey underground parking lot at Khula Manch. We believe he has not abandoned that idea, and the football field will be on top of that enormous structure. 

KMC previously imposed similar bans at Darbar Marg, New Baneswor and Bagh Bazar. Following a public outcry, Mayor Balen came up with underground parking solutions like the one at Dharara, the half-built Kathmandu Tower, and other business complexes.

But it is easy to see what this means: systematic encroachment of the last remaining open space in Kathmandu and a misguided notion of 'development'.

Mayor Balen is a rapper and a structural engineer. He therefore has only engineering solutions to congestion. Open spaces are critical during disasters, as we saw in the 2015 earthquake. He should also know that Tundikhel is integral to recharging Kathmandu’s fast depleting aquifers.

The Mayor’s other solution to solving traffic was to get his high-handed urban commandos to commit atrocities on street vendors. Development is not about structures, it is about people. 

Mayor Balen’s notion of a ‘park’ is not a section of the city preserved in its natural state, but a ‘parking lot’. The quality of development in a city is determined by how inclusive it is. The measure of progress is not one person in a SUV stuck in traffic, but 40 passengers whizzing along on a bus lane.

Distorted development it is not just happening in cities. The kind of haphazard infrastructure and wanton development going on nationwide will not just bankrupt the country, but hurt citizens — especially as climate breakdown in the Himalaya unleashes multiple disasters. 

But local governments are busy building 20m high view towers on peaks already 3,000m above sea level. Nepal’s gate fetish is spreading unabated, and the latest fad is to erect giant cement cabbages, onions and apples at highway intersections. 

On a national scale, the government is still hell-bent on logging a huge tract of primary forest to build an airport at Nijgad even as international airlines shun Pokhara and Bhairawa. Nearer Kathmandu, the government is getting an ADB loan to build a Rs25 billion dam in Shivapuri National Park to — wait for this — flush the Bagmati. Nepalis yet unborn are already in debt.

Not building is also development. We should know where or what not to build. But kickback-driven maldevelopment is destroying Nepal as megalomania and kleptomania go hand-in-hand. Much of Nepal is urbanising rapidly, often without proper planning or resources, pouring concrete over what used to be fertile farms. 

The Nepal Tarai is turning into one long east-west metropolis. Our cities are uninhabitable because of the lack of open spaces, garbage and toxic air. Federalism was supposed to devolve political decision-making so there would be fairer grassroots development. 

While this has happened in some rural municipalities, others have a misguided sense of progress. Helambu is building a 15km replica of the Great Wall of China. Instead of investing in agriculture to slow outmigration and boost food production, upgrading schools and equipping hospitals, or ensuring safe drinking water, elected mayors are busy squandering budgets on showy cement ersatz.

We have cost-effective solutions, there are laws and regulations waiting to be implemented. In a democracy, public pressure and advocacy can lead to genuine change, and only such corrective action should be rewarded in the next election.

Two weeks ago, this paper published a page 1 report on how Tundikhel has been gradually eaten up over the past decades so that citizens of an overcrowded city have much less access to it. 

One of the last remaining stretches was Khula Manch. Having an astro-turfed football ground for use by the city’s football clubs is not just daft, it is gross injustice. Air pollution, waste management, lack of open spaces and unplanned building sprees are signs of urban blight, and the root reason is misguided political leadership and its willingness to ignore the greater good. 

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.’ The width of footpaths on Kathmandu’s roads is indicative of where our priority lies.

Sonia Awale

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