Reinventing Kathmandu

April 11, 2018 00:10 AM Devendra Nath Gongal


Kathmandu is no more like Kathmandu that we saw back then. The city is expanding but it lacks character, quality, and, most of all, beauty

 

Nepali politicians and academicians used to hover around Kathmandu and advocate that village development is the only sure shot way for overall development of the country. Now they seem to have gone a step forward. They seem to think urban growth is a means to rural growth. 

Nepali people since many centuries have revered their only city ‘Nepal’—which was a synonym for Kathmandu valley for long. Furthermore, people from all walks of life—Nepalis and foreigners alike—loved Kathmandu as a mystical place where spirituality and human beings are linked through nature and its denizens. Despite shortcomings in infrastructures, basically deficiency in sanitation and other physical paraphernalia, “there was dignity in scarcity then” as Hans Rosling, Swedish statistician once said. The combined mesmerizing effect of this valley was so great that all loved and praised it with open heart by saying “Kathmandu is a beautiful place”.  Poet Bhanubhakta went as far as to call Kathmandu Alakapuri, the city of prosperity and dream.

Road to Kathmandu  
For many centuries in Nepal, all roads led to Kathmandu.  Many things have changed here since the time of Bhanubhakta. Living style and aspirations of people have changed and so have their material requirements.   Modernity is gradually encroaching upon the space of spirituality. Still, all the roads lead to Kathmandu Valley even today. This is not going to change for many more decades to come even after the implementation of federal constitution. 

It was encouraging to hear an anchor in a Nepali FM radio announcing that ‘Kathmandu is expanding by leaps and bounds’. At the same time one’s conscience is alerted when a Nepali writer Sophia Pande bravely said that ‘Kathmandu is no longer a beautiful city’. A prominent German architect Neil Gutshov expressed his concerns by calling Kathmandu “The Lost Paradise.” This is because captivating charm of Kathmandu is shrinking day by day or is being limited to only some small nooks and corners. 

Kathmandu is no more like Kathmandu that we saw back then. The city is expanding but it lacks character, quality, and, most of all, beauty. Private developers are shaping it mostly, without organic link to the city’s development. With apprehensions towards this status, Nepalis are overwhelmingly expressing their concern for its development in articles, seminars, and conferences.

In spite of all this, Kathmandu still is one of the great cities of the world and it was not built in a day. It is a throbbing physical entity of a continuous culture (from the periods of Gopals, Kirats, Licchavis, Mallas and Ranas) of the indigenous traditions, festivals, legends, myths, and superstition of the country. Not surprisingly and for this reason, Kathmandu has more than the eyes can meet.   The authorities and the urban planners should, therefore remember, that development of Kathmandu is not only a matter of political and technical obligation but it is a work of culture, art and creativity.  

Sleeping city 
Since the last half centuries, many cities of the world shifted the paradigm of development towards human relation, environment, and heritage but Kathmandu continued sleeping and metamorphosed into a prosaic and vapid town. One of the biggest embarrassments developed during this period is the crumbling relation and greater distance developed between people and the concerned authorities. A big chasm of interest between them was the result of the elite urban planning documents developed by the elites for the elites. 

Series of planning approaches developed elsewhere—from physical to master planning, land use, structural integrated action, periodic and indicative plan, the idea of smart city etc—created only an illusion of development.  No attempts were made to learn lessons from the legacy that produced a marvelous example of settlement pattern in the valley. Links to the past were almost entirely and miserably forgotten. 

So today people resist change. They stand against preserving its beauty. The other day I saw people in Boudha demonstrating and chanting slogan ‘no to world heritage.’ The story of Bhaktapur is no different. After ‘Bhaktapur Development Project’, people of Bhaktapur seem to have felt that ultimate development has been achieved.

Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, rose from a humble beginning of mayor of a provincial municipality of Surakarta. He resolved complicated municipality development issues by working with the people through dialogue and interaction. To relocate an open market place, he conducted as many as 500 meetings with the local people.  He is set to lead his nation on the same principle of working with the people through dialogue, and interaction. 

Katmandu has many things to add to the nation’s glory and is capable of impacting the regional urbanscape as well. But it is distressing to note that the potential for various international centers and opportunity for developing it as a meeting, incentive, conferences, and exhibition (MICE) capital has not been realized even though it was once approved by Regional Center of UN Security Council.

Kathmandu physically has the biggest role in developing Nepal into a link between India and China. We have never discussed how we should turn it into such a vital link even in academic circle.  We have mega projects in the making (including China-Nepal railway and now there is a talk of Raxaul-Kathmandu railway as well), that has much to do with the development of Kathmandu.  Fast Track and Tunnel Road to Kathmandu were introduced without any future vision for Kathmandu.  Poor Kathmandu now has to be satisfied with roads. 

Political revolutions were expected to bring and herald ‘enlightenment’ period. Ill-fated Kathmandu which is expecting such transition instead has to endure some of its parts resembling war zones after 2015 earthquakes. To make Kathmandu more livable let us reclaim the past and capture the future by preserving heritage for tomorrow, by honoring architectural patrimony. 

The author was Chairperson of SAARC Association of Architects 

gongaldn@gmail.com

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