During our school days, it was not unusual for some classmates to head off to the Bagmati during monsoon floods for a swim. The easiest way to learn swimming, the dare devils boasted, was to jump into the swelling river. Perhaps, it was in tune with adventurism typical of juveniles. This presumably still goes on as we occasionally read news of kids being swept away.
The Kumbheswor pond in Patan was the next favourite spot, since it was closer. The opening of a pool in the stadium provided opportunities for adults to learn the skill that Kathmanduites grossly lacked. The shortage of decent public pools continues, and the shortage is even worse now as the population has ballooned. With dismal sports-related facilities, it is no surprise that urbanites tend to flock to any place where absolutely anything may be happening.
As for Bagmati, its water has depleted considerably while the level of pollution has risen by a significant degree. The Kathmandu valley has about 57 recognisable flowing water bodies. Being entirely rain fed, valley rivers/ streams have low discharge except during monsoon. River banks are often places of serenity and peace, hence ideal for picnics and strolls. We are blessed to have such a meandering water body in our midst. But the pollution and the foul stench are a big put off and much worse for those living on the banks.
The dismal situation is purely an outcome of the stakeholders on either side. At the individual level, the problem is assumed solved if the foul sewage gets flushed or drained out of one’s property. Locality-based drainage systems just provide an easy way to feed raw sewage directly into the river. Traditionally, Kathmandu’s urban sewages have always been flushed out by its rivers, untreated. And we seem to be in no hurry to change this trend.
A bold step was taken by the ‘Bagmati declaration group’ which in 1996 tried to enlist people into expressing their unwillingness to be cremated on its banks so long as it was polluted. The situation since has become even worse. Activists like Hutaram Vaidya have canvassed extensively for Bagmati civilization single handedly. The river did not deteriorate overnight; it is a result of countless number of small or big effluents channelled into the river or water bodies over many years.
The formation of a high powered entity with a long acronym and an even longer name—the ‘High Powered Committee for the Integrated Development of the Bagmati Civilization’ (HPCIDBC)—offers little hope. We saw another high powered entity—the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Committee (1976)—but just look where we are now. No matter how quickly we want the river to be restored, the work will be almost intangible in effect and painfully slow, at best.
Encroachment of flood plains is another major issue. The ‘UN Park’ in Patan, west of Sankhamool, was an attempt to prevent the pollution of the river in that stretch. Caroll C. Long, the then UNDP chief, a planner by training, perhaps had some soft corner for this concept. And the UN made some early funds available. Now, however, the question is: Does the place, which has no resemblance to a park, deserve the sobriquet of UN Park?
Talking of tradition, mourners are often appalled when they use Bagmati waters in both, before and after, cremation-related rituals. Most choose not to speak, out of love and respect for the departed than anything else. These rituals were laid out at a time Bagmati was crystal clean. To follow it to the letter at the current juncture is neither practical nor advisable. But major improvements do not come cheap, as was discovered painfully while running the Guheswari sewage treatment plant.
It turned out that the electricity bills for running the mechanical agitators were unfeasible. So what good is the Aryaghat sewage bypass project? Maintenance aspects of essential devices have always been poor, as was the case with the sewage pumps that have gone kaput for about two decades! Sadly, it was the single biggest reason for the failure of Kathmandu city core’s sewage disposal system and the major source of Bagmati’s pollution.
Finally, electric crematoriums have been in the news for a few decades. Is it such a complicated thing that it is taking so long to build? It would, at least, offer a choice in the manner bodies are cremated. While no one essentially disagrees, it appears as if the responsible bodies do not see the urgency, or have no time to brood over such a trivial issue. I am as sceptic and would love to be proven wrong. Also, some questions need to be answered.
Would it be too much to expect a crematorium to run and be maintained properly, or wiser to wait for a few more decades till we have “surplus” electricity (a national joke!) and hypothetically, what would one do in the event of a power outage in the middle of a cremation, transfer a half burnt cadaver on to a traditional funeral pyre