We tend to get so caught up by the sheer spectacle of a big-scale destructive event that it’s easy to miss its broader, long-term implications. The government’s ongoing road expansion drive has been criticized and hailed in equal measures, from different quarters. One line of criticism has been that the UCPN Maoist-led government is intent on heaping pain on the ‘capitalist bourgeois’ who ‘thumb their noses’ at the rural proletariat. Others have criticized the inhumane way in which screaming children and women have been dragged away, often at gunpoint, from their homes before they were brutally demolished—a lifetime’s savings gone in an instant.
Some believe the whole agenda of ‘wider roads for easier transport’ is misplaced, as more space will soon be gobbled up by new vehicles. Those who have supported the campaign, on the other hand, argue that something like it was long overdue; Kathmandu’s narrow streets had become impassable due to constant jams. Moreover, they contend, those who built houses by encroaching on public land have no right to complain. Lost in this raucous debate was the question of what was happening to the thousands of trees felled in course of the demolition drive. Until now.
On Thursday, the Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN), a network of individuals and organizations working to improve the lives of animals in Nepal, launched an online petition calling for the Department of Roads (DoR) and Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority (KVTDA) to immediately halt roadside tree-felling, and called for an investigation into “corruption involving sale of the wood.” But the scope of the AWNN-led campaign is not limited to calling for investigation into illegal timber sale; the goal is to attract the attention of all relevant stakeholders on how Kathmandu is being defaced and defiled by a reckless demolition spree. This is the reason the network has called upon the authorities to develop “an intelligent road design which includes existing and new trees.”
Given that most roadside trees in Kathmandu have already been felled, even a successful anti-felling campaign will have limited impact. But we believe even more important is the symbolic value of the protest, which is aimed at putting pressure on the government to take immediate measures to undo the great harm it has caused. One of the ways this might be achieved is through funneling of the proceeds from timber sale into new plantations in the barren roadsides. As the government seems to have no plan to replace old trees, such an innovative approach is desperately needed.
This is one cause that deserves the support of everyone. Not only do trees act as natural thermostats for cities and towns heating up from accumulation of greenhouse gases, they also provide our eyes the much-needed respite from the monotonous concrete jungle that modern-day Kathmandu has come to symbolize. This is not just a matter of aesthetics. Recent studies have linked urban landscape bereft of greenery with higher suicide rates. The campaign deserves our support because ignoring the ensuing social and environmental costs could prove costly. Without the little breathing space provided by trees in what is one of the most polluted cities in Asia, we might all suffocate