This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength of wealth has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place. - Sahir Ludhyanvi (Translation by K.C. Kanda, 2004, “Masterpieces of Urdu Nazm”)
Keshav Sthapit, former mayor of Kathmandu, is recently appointed commissioner of the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority (KVTDA). He is a doer who inspires action, but with faults, because he has a tendency to offer solutions from the realms of fantasy. That is why one should take his appointment with guarded optimism. He can be affable and annoying in equal measure. There are times, when one gets an impression that more than listening to your question, he likes to hear himself speak. Twice, I have spent long hours speaking with him about Kathmandu: The city and its denizens. At the end of both meetings, instead of my notes, I have found pages after pages of my diary filled with his sketches of the Bagmati River, its banks, and the settlements that sit on them; labyrinths of streets that adorn Kathmandu’s core and periphery; and houses old and new, leaning uneasily against one another. He exudes infectious passion as he illuminates his plans for transforming the spaces and structures to inject them with vibrancy. He displays impressive knowledge and insight as he outlines his vision for the city. In a way, his envisioned endeavor is primarily economistic because generating surplus value is an end, and engaging and addressing urban issues, usually through an iron clad ‘hands-on’ approach, the means. As he intimates, he displays an acute and unmistakable sense of self-confidence that sometimes borders arrogance.
That is why, what is political to him, is also personal, driven more by self-righteousness, it appears, than ideological commitment. That is wherein lies the problem, because it makes his vision appear myopic, and at times, misplaced. For example, at a recent publicly broadcasted TV program, in a signature Sthapit style, he informally opined that the banks of Bagmati should be converted into ‘Love Park’. When asked what ‘Love Park’ is? He turned on the charmer self and casually replied, “a place where people love”, drawing a hearty laughter from the audience. Not many would find it funny though.
Words have uncanny ability to speak for the contemporary world even when they originate from a specific time and place in history. The poem that opens this piece is by a highly revered progressive Urdu poet, Sahir Ludhyanvi. Here, he speaks of a common man’s anguish as he casts a resentful glare at the Taj Mahal, built by Shahjahan, the emperor, in memory of his wife Mumtaz, as a monument of love. As equally momentous as his love is, the ordinary man can afford no such fortitude, nor fortress, to express it, hence the chagrin.
Not too long ago, one section of the riverbank under the Bagmati Bridge, perhaps a potential place to erect Sthapit’s ‘love’, used to be a sukumbasi settlement called ‘Paurakhi Basti’. The community that built it had named it ‘Paurakhi’, meaning ‘hardworking’, to symbolize the labor and love they invested on material objects and structures to give it the form of a functional neighborhood: The tea shop that served the locals, the meeting centre to discuss local self-organizing, the primary school where kids learned to read and write, the local church to congregrate and pray, and an open space at the centre that functioned more or less like a ‘Chowk’ that brought together the structures and the people into a collective whole, and imbued it with an empowering sense of place, and community. In a matter of moments, government forced eviction carried out earlier this year razed ‘Paurakhi Basti’ to the ground, erasing the sense of place and community in the process. The eviction was legitimized by rendering the sukumbasi ‘illegal’ first, and justified later by exalting the urgent need to restore Bagmati’s environmental health. The fantastic and elitist ‘Love Park’ may at some point replace once vibrant but now fallen ‘Paurakhi Basti’; a case of cruel joke on plebeian love.
CIVILIZATION IN THE CITY
Mahesh Bahadur Basnet, chairperson of High Powered Bagmati Civilization Integrated Development Committee (HBCIDC) mandated with implementing the Bagmati Action Plan (BAP), claims that dismantling Paurakhi Basti, part of a phase-wise eviction from Teel Ganga to Teku Dobhan, was crucial for initiating the BAP as the settlement created physical obstruction to the plan. BAP’s goal, broadly stating, is to treat wastewater flowing into the Bagmati to restore its environmental health, through construction of sewer pipelines and wastewater treatment plants. It also aims to help renovate infrastructures of ‘civilization’ that currently lie dilapidated on the riverbanks, such as temples, resting houses, and traditional waterspouts. Basnet believes that restoring the infrastructures would also help symbolically revive ‘civilization’ in the city, because historically, the city built on the banks.
Couched in a benevolent language of creating green and civilized Kathmandu, the monotonous march to modernity dismantle or sidestep anything that do not fit into the modern narrative.
However, it is curious to note that amidst the dopey chants about ‘love’ à la Sthapit, Basnet’s resolve to revive ‘civilization’ seems to be receding by the day. Seeing as it is that no restoration or revival activities have taken place in the emptied space under the bridge, BAP could be gradually lending itself to potential critiques that are generally aimed at city beautification projects the world over. Couched in a benevolent language of creating modern cities, in BAP’s case, green and ‘civilized’ Kathmandu, the monotonous march to modernity such projects undertake, dismantle or sidestep anything that do not fit into the ‘modern’ narrative, both spatially and temporally. In the process, valid concerns that arise around rights and justice as a result of material dispossession and physical dislocation, of poor communities usually, are cast aside as ‘informal’, ‘illegal’, or ‘non-genuine’. In the mainstream narrative of a ‘modern city’, as is imagined, usually by upper and middle class urbanites, and planners and practitioners that generally belong to similar class position, ‘slum’ as an idea, and a lived reality, becomes too ‘uncivilized’ to belong to the ‘modern time’, and hence cannot inhabit the ‘modern space’. Basnet may have been buoyed by the ideological bias, which is perhaps why HPBCIDC was hell bent on urgently dismantling the Paurakhi Basti, without really having, as it has turned out now, a concrete follow-up plan in place.
THE ‘ILLEGAL’ STIGMA
Sthapit desires ‘love’, Basnet aspires for ‘civilization’, while residents of Sundarighat, where the government plans to resettle some of the evicted families, shy away from the stigma that ‘sukumbasi’ is, amidst landownership disputes. Caught in between ‘love’ and ‘civilization’, lives of the 58 evicted sukumbasi family members identified by the government as “genuine”, now hang in limbo, but are being gradually pushed back to the riverbank by the weight of waiting for resettlement. No one cares to know about the whereabouts of over 200 other “non-genuine” families evicted because “they are illegal anyways”: A smug Kathmandu middle and upper class response to eviction. As for Sthapit and Basnet, in a recent public workshop organized to discuss preservation of the Bagmati River, a news daily reported about a heated argument that took place between the two (Naya Patrika, July 09, 2012). As the workshop was coming to an end, the daily reports, Sthapit bluntly remarked that it was no longer relevant to discuss HPBCIDC’s role in preserving Bagmati as the committee’s term ends shortly, in 2013 (BAP is a five-year plan). KVTDA should instead have the mandate for implementing the BAP, Sthapit declared. In response, Basnet decided to take a swipe back at Sthapit likening KVTDA to a khichdi, a mish-mash, without a clearly defined role. It appears that in trying to give ‘love’ and ‘civilization’ a concrete shape, the two have finally figured that the boundary that delineates their institutional and administrative authority is as fluid and blurry as the one that separates ‘love’ and ‘civilization’.
The writer is a student of urban geography focusing on South Asia
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