No question that Kathmandu’s roads need to be drastically improved. The dispute is over the manner it has been pursued.
Do we have any plan beyond demolition? Obviously not, officers of KVTDA led by Keshav Sthapit are too occupied showing off their prowess by continuing with the demolition work. They have no time for tedious planning on paper, normally a pre requisite, before any demolition. We are yet to see tangible progress on the construction front. We haven’t seen a widened road with a working drainage system and utility poles shifted yet, not to forget wide and smooth footpaths on which people can walk, without the fear of twisting their ankle.
Contrary to what we hear, the electrical and telephone cables are not likely to be laid underground any time soon. Relocating of water pipes is a distant dream as they have not even thought about it. Abundance of rusted pipes running just a few inches under the road surface are likely to create problems of leakages leading to bigger potholes in coming days.
The most appalling aspect has been the branding of every one affected by the demolition as “encroachers” by the media. The term should have been uses more judiciously by highlighting cases of specific public space encroachments. The encroachers are rarely confronted, for the sake of not disturbing the existing order, as there are legitimate agencies supposed to oversee all such misdemeanours. The level of vigilance can never run at par with boundary disputes between neighbours where all hell can break loose for just a few millimetres.
The concept of the right of way (ROW) came to be applied in the case of urban areas with the promulgation of Kathmandu Upatakya Nagar Yojana Act in the year 1976-77. The maap-danda (Byelaws) following the Act immediately placed roads in the valley into different categories with major roads attracting wider ROWs. The maximum ROW designated for Rajmarga stood at 25m / 82 ft. on either side of the centre line. The width was progressively reduced with lesser roads attracting much narrower ROW. For a stretch of road, with an already built up area, provisions were made to reduce normal ROW width to cater to the built up space already there. Different sectors of Ring Road, namely at Koteswor, Chabahil and Maharajgunj are prime example of such arrangements.
Most narrow roads in the city have no ROWs as it was impractical to do so. The disadvantage of narrow roads becomes apparent only during emergencies when vehicles like fire engines and ambulances cannot reach their destination on time.
But the current case of frenzied demolitions is affecting denizens of the peripheries. There is no question that Kathmandu’s road infrastructure needs to be drastically improved in terms of quality and geometry. The dispute is about the manner it has been pursued. The “encroachment” relates more to the conflict between laid out ROW and spaces built before it came into being. At least, most of those are not physical encroachment per se.
The flouting of ROW directives in case of new constructions is in all likelihood, the outcome of collusion between the property owner and officials entrusted with issuing planning permits. There should be no leniency in addressing such cases. But what do you do with regard to spaces built before? No one can demolish those without duly acquiring such properties and paying ‘respectable’ compensations under the present context of rampant wages.
It may be worth remembering how all this road widening began in the first place. It began not as a venture to address traffic congestion issues in Kathmandu but as a way to reduce the time taken by Prachanda’s cavalcade plying between Baluwater and Singha Durbar during his short stint. The demolition drive became a popular topic of discussion with one noted columnist almost comparing our man leading the D-drive with a renowned French Town planner!
Arteries are the main blood vessels in our body whose diameter gets progressively smaller as they branch away. The volume of blood being pumped requires a bigger diameter of a blood vessel closer to the heart than at the farther end. The Ring Road is one such urban artery which feeds traffic in and out of cities. As such, all Ring Road connections need to be wider, not narrow. But strangely, there have been reports of some such stretches having been wittingly tinkered with and reduced. Strangely, the ROW then increased to 11m and then further to 14m as it moved further away from the Ring Road. With such cases coming to light how can anyone keep quiet and allow 14m continue at places with roads of even lesser status?
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is a great proponent of the demolition theory. He seems to believe that demolition is a must before rejuvenation. Come to think of it, perhaps the project began and will end with just demolition, making it a nothing more than a complete demolition package. But then is it any different from the overall situation in the country where the political class has achieved nothing compared to what they promised to deliver? All around us, there is nothing beyond rubbles.