Former mayor of Kathmandu Valley, Keshav Sthapit, has been appointed the head of Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority (KVTDA), which is tasked with leading the drive to expand roads and to coordinate development efforts in Kathmandu. During his tenure as mayor beginning 1997, Sthapit quickly developed a reputation as a hands-on bureaucrat who could push through projects like Maitighar Mandala against strong political opposition. Biswas Baral caught up with Sthapit at the sidelines of a heated hearing session at City Hall where the ex-mayor was busy answering an irate group from Ratopul, Kathmandu, that was demanding explanation for the demolition of their roadside properties.
What are your major responsibilities as the chief of Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority?
Right now, there are so many development agencies working here that it is hard to know who is doing what. There is considerable overlap and duplication, which means unnecessary drainage of budget. This is where the KVTDA steps in. KVTDA is the coordinating mechanism among these bodies. It is a holistic approach to town development which coordinates planning and lays out clear jurisdiction for each agency. But implementation will be left to the development agencies. What we will be doing is monitoring them, bringing them into a system. Take the Melamchi drinking water project. The government says it is keen on bringing water from Melamchi. But people of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur say they didn´t need water arranged for by ´colonialists´. KVTDA will help reconcile these competing demands.
Won´t the authority´s broad mandate of maintaining oversight over such a vast network of development agencies complicate things further?
No. Consider the Bagmati river system which flows through Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur districts. In such a case of multiple jurisdictions, a coordinating body like KVTDA will be vital in any collective effort to clean up Bagmati waters. Or take the issue of squatters. They are scattered all over the valley. I have started a dialogue with the slum dwellers. The chief of the Slum Dwellers International is now here. He had expressed his interest in formation of 1,000 transit camps. There is a big land area at Sallaghari, Bhaktapur, which could be a site for the camps. If this can be achieved, we will be able to shift those now residing by Bagmati in a month, month and a half. Similarly, there is a 1,000-ropani public plot in Panga, Kirtipur, which can be developed into a sports complex, a film city and an artistic venue and where the urban poor can be relocated. When a city is created, it will develop its own markets.
You seem to have lots of plans for Kathmandu. But what are your priority areas?
All development works should be our priority because they are interrelated. We have qualified bureaucrats and technocrats in the country. If we give them the responsibility to harness a particular development project, they are capable of doing it. Say, we want to develop the former royal properties at Nagarjuna into a tourist center. If we ask the private sector, I am sure they will come up with 50 different proposals. Our job is only as a facilitator. We will facilitate projects across the board so as to bring important actors together. Another important area will be clean up of Bagmati. All the organizations working for its conversation will be brought under one umbrella and a joint Bagmati declaration issued. Within three or four years, we will be able to dip our feet in its cool waters.
Kathmandu wears a devastated look as roadside infrastructures have been demolished but construction of new road is yet to begin. When will this process start?
What I have been saying is that let us remove the debris and at least gravel the roads before the onset of monsoon. If you follow my approach, the debris will take care of itself. KVTDA will only give orders; it will be private players who will be carrying out the task. Let us say a private constructor cleans up the place and puts in place sewerage disposal facilities at either side of the road. Drinking water pipes can be similarly laid on either side, instead of the current situation where they run under the middle of the road. All this will be done with the investment of the private sector. Now, the local constructor can make up for the cost, even earn a profit, by, say, charging two rupee each from motorbikes plying that stretch of the road. If such schemes can be worked out, everybody will participate.
But all these look like long-term plans. How do you take care of the more immediate concerns?
No, this is a short-term plan which will go into implementation stage within a month. If we can persuade locals that they have a historic chance to participate in an important project, they will come forward by themselves. Recently, a delegation from a locality by Tukucha river visited me. Earlier, this same group of people complained of dozers leveling their neighborhood, but now they want the roads widened themselves so that they could benefit from bigger roads and increased land value. If they feel their little effort will make a big difference, they are likely to collaborate. Thus we have to give due importance to people´s aspirations.
You were famous as a hands-on mayor who would not shun from dirtying his hands to carry out vital tasks. But with the country going through a difficult transition, do you believe unstable political climate will mar your efforts?
No, in fact, it makes it easier. For instance, if some politician says he is against the clean-up and development of Tukucha area, his career is finished. Anybody who stands against any of our development plans will be seen by the people as an impediment to development of modern Kathmandu. Thus I expect to get full cooperation form bureaucrats and politicians. Ask a retired bureaucrat and he will tell you eagerly about the achievements he chalked up during his tenure. Those are the highlights of his career. There are tens of thousands of such people across the country.
One man brought a 50-point plan for the development of Bhaisepati, Lalitpur yesterday. He brought it to me, he said, because he did not have access to those in power. He complained that government bodies simply didn´t listen to people like him. There was another person who was interested in installing 800 beautiful solar-panel lampposts in Kathmandu before the CA term deadline ends May 27. He said that he wanted to bring light to the country, literally, to coincide with the arrival of the new constitution. If people start taking such initiatives, my work is finished.
How do you see Kathmandu five years down the road, when your tenure as KVTDA chief ends?
Very vibrant. Very sexy. People will be amazed at the city´s transformation. This is the message those visiting Kathmandu will take back home. A cultural hub, a clean and developed city with moderate climate: this is what they will tell their folks back home. Where else do you get this combination? This is my challenge: If a million tourists arrive in Kathmandu now, three million will in five years´ time. For Kathmandu is a piece of jewel on earth.