A city often has more than one tale to tell. Bombay can be a tale of many cities: Of Dharavi ‘tours’, Bollywood boulevard, and the elite Marine Drive. Likewise, Toronto: Of the bourgeoning bourgeoisie, the shrinking middle class, and the swelling working class. Kathmandu too: of the gentrifying ‘Jhamel’, the multicultural Thamel, the crowding core, and the sprawling peripheries. But for now, let’s stay with one tale that Kathmandu tells, of two cities: Kathmandu, as seen through the eyes of the state, and that of the sukumbasi, or squatter communities.
‘SEEING LIKE A STATE’
The image accompanying this article is of a future riverbank of Bagmati. Successful implementation of the Bagmati Action Plan (BAP), ideally by 2014, would turn the vision into reality, according to the High Powered Committee for Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization (HPCIDBC). The sanitized image—of clean river and green parks—that is displayed at BAP workshops is almost reminiscent of modernist planning visions such as ‘the radiant city’ or ‘the garden city’. The visions when implemented in different times and places in history, from Paris to Chandigarh, have yielded more failures than success due to the tendency to see landscapes merely as a physical space by being either ignorant or obtuse about how social, cultural, and economic relations, that are chaotic in conflation, embedded within a landscape together turn it into a livable place.
James Scott raises these critiques and more in his seminal work Seeing like a State and elucidates the limits of high-modernist planning logic: the over-privileging of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘exchange’ values over everyday ‘use’ value of the spaces. The logic finds the radiant city or the garden city ‘efficient’ because they ‘look’ efficient: greenbelts, sidewalks, gardens all look ‘efficient’, ‘ordered’ and ‘linear’. There is no need to prepare for the ‘chaos’ that organically developed vibrant bazaar in 1950’s Chandigarh. Le Corbusier, the high-modernist planner of ‘the radiant city’, dismantled it to be replaced by huge squares, which stand empty to this day. Similar logic of ‘creative destruction’ is evident when one assesses the way the BAP is being implemented: Destroying livelihoods to create ‘livability’.
While it is important and urgent to treat wastewater flowing into the Bagmati from toilet discharge and household waste, and recharge the water level, the other logics that seem to regulate the BAP is questionable. The emphasis on aesthetics, evident in the image, and exchange value to be appropriated through potential increase in land price of surrounding areas once the aesthetics is realistically attained, is being put to work through aggressive eviction of the settlements, which must be critiqued on different grounds.
First, the current use, as life space, of the riverbanks would be dismantled with no concrete plan for future use. If the UN Park is any guide, then the sign is ominous: it is dull and devoid of life, or as Keshav Sthapit, ex-mayor and the current commissioner of the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, once remarked, “that is murkha park!” (stupid park). Second, the way the government carried out eviction earlier this year raises serious questions around rights and justice.
The eviction violated treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Nepal is a party. Such treaties oblige the state to ensure few conditions before eviction: the right of sukumbasi communities to be informed of eviction ahead of time to be able to prepare; the right of children to continue education despite eviction or relocation; the right to have access to legal facilities should the communities feel the need to challenge eviction; the right to health facilities should eviction process lead to health effects. These are just a few among some more.
“We are not against development, but destruction in the name of development,” is how sukumbasi communities respond to the BAP and the eviction plans underway. In fact, there is a shared desire for a clean Bagmati because “it is the sukumbasi communities who live close to the river.” Further, when asked what her dream city looks like, Ram Kumari Rai, executive committee member of Society for Preservation of Shelter and Habitat—Nepal (SPOSH-Nepal), a national-level sukumbasi organization, asserts: “My dream city is clean and green. My dream city is also a city where everyone gets to live as equal citizens, not as non-citizens.” This is an unequivocal theme that runs through the sukumbasi communities’ narrative of the right to live in the city. Meaning, the communities are invested in same terms as the state, albeit with qualification that they want to be active participants in the process of production of space that BAP envisions, and in appropriating the space once it is produced, by way of being able to live, play, and work on it.
Such qualification is put in practice in many innovative and scientific ways. Introduction of a biometric survey tool serves as a case in point. The survey tool takes digital fingerprints of sukumbasi household members, and aligns them with current residence of the members (everything from a shack to a pakki house), and archives the record in a digital database as a way to discipline and discourage informal transfer of property, ‘illegitimate ownership’ by those who own land and/or house elsewhere, and so on. According to the members of SPOSH-Nepal, who tested the tool last February in Gairi Gaun, a settlement on the riverbank little west of the Sinamangal Bridge, the tool is helpful for finding ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ sukumbasi.
The tool, introduced from India during a three-day international conference jointly organized by SPOSH-Nepal with LUMANTI in Kathmandu around, has been tested successfully in India, and will be tested further in two or three more settlements in Kathmandu in near future, said Basanta Jaisi, SPOSH-Nepal’s general secretary, a few months ago.
ON THE DISJUNCTURE
What the disjuncture in the representations of and claims made over space by the state and the sukumbasi reveals is the possibilities for political opening as well as closure in the way we imagine building the good life in the city, so to speak. The shared desire for the good city provides an opening for collaboration between HPCIDBC and the sukumbasi in working on eviction and resettlement issues as well as the BAP. For example, sukumbasi communities’ willingness to work with the government to find ‘fake sukumbasi’ makes evident a collective will that can be harnessed for solidarity across difference—between planners and sukumbasi—to work on a collective goal of benefitting the city, the river, and the inhabitants.
However, the disjuncture also reveals contradictions within. While the biometric survey may encourage collaboration, this strategy of gaining state legitimacy may also reproduce the discourse of ‘fake’ and ‘authentic’ sukumbasi, without really transcending the ideology and politics that produce such discourse, and in the process producing newer class cleavages within the sukumbasi. The contradiction evident here could achieve participation for some sukumbasi communities in planning but at the expense of a solidaristic mode of engagement. Therefore, while in enacting the responsibility of restoring the river’s environmental health, the onus is on the state to also reframe the responsibility as ‘an ethics of accountability’ towards the sukumbasi.
Meaning, HPCIDBC should harness and engage with the collective will for cooperation shown by the sukumbasi communities with a goal of a collaborative effort for implementing BAP. Meanwhile, the state should also pay attention to attendant processes that may produce cleavages and fractures within the sukumbasi communities and nip such regressive tendencies in the bud. This would mean instituting the inhabitants’ right to live in the city with a cautionary eye critically cast on the potential formation of uneven rights to the city.