If the dust blowing around the roads of Kathmandu does not manage to suffocate us, it clearly imparts the message that we are geared up to reconstruct our city once again! The city which was established by Lichchhavis, then rebuilt by Mallas, had probably never seen a reconstruction effort of this scale, except after the deadly earthquake of 1934. Though this move is supposed to be beneficial for Kathmanduites, there are a few unheard sides to it.
In Kathmandu, a new neighborhood comes into existence in a typical fashion: a house gets built in the middle of a paddy field, with construction material carried in heaps in “dokos”. This is followed by exploring the possibility of getting a road, a connection to a sewer, water and electricity supply, and then telephone, cable TV, or internet. A foot-wide trail which separates surprisingly oddly shaped plots of lands is widened to a two way pedestrian path, which gets further widened to cater to a motorbike, and then a car, and then a water tanker needed to supply potable water every fortnight. If one is lucky enough to have influential and energetic neighbors, development reaches its pinnacle when the dirt road gets blacktopped and becomes a one-lane, all-weather road. The result is the ever growing city of Kathmandu with very little open space, over-flowing sewers, drying wells, rupturing waterlines, and narrow lanes chock-a-block with vehicles, more so when you need to rush.
At this point, the state usually has a sudden realization of its need for intervention. The Guided Land Development Map developed in 1980s is taken off the shelf and dusted. A team of highly motivated regulators then try to implement it straight in the field, without bothering to check the present site conditions, the development there by private entities, the options available, the legalities, and the public participation. With no public hearing, and no prior information regarding the plan, the municipality sprays the walls with the dreaded red color, followed by a series of disturbing announcements from a loud speaker. And then, suddenly, there are bulldozers widening the roads!
The current road demolition project is believed to have affected more than 1,000 houses already, and people have lost over 10 billion rupees in total, whereas the fund allocated by the government for this project is merely 5 billion rupees. The anxiety that the locals have gone through is immense, not just due to an alarmingly high dust level, but also due to the costs involved in the restructuring. Building or repairing a house does not come easy in this country, often people take loans, apart from investing their entire savings. The pain of having such a house demolished can in no way be explained in monetary terms. Surprisingly, none of the authorities, who inked the approval of these structures that go against existing byelaws, were ever questioned regarding their unlawful actions.
The trend of such haphazard construction continues, with buildings still being approved and constructed by manipulating the bylaws and appeasing the authorities. The VDCs encompassing the city are like a haven for people wanting to put up a dwelling in the valley, since they do not have complicated bylaws to follow yet. But it’s just a matter of time: those lush green suburbs will soon swell to become overflowing neighborhoods; and one fine morning our regulators will decide to intervene with bulldozers to correct mistakes made ages ago. Perhaps we know better how to rebuild our Rome than to build a new one from scratch!
The effort to correct past mistakes by widening 200 kms of road cannot take place without controversies. However, there must be some methods of reconstruction that can satisfy the citizens who reside in the affected areas.
The highly talked about GLD plan is still almost a secret limited to its executors. When I was working as a Project Manager in the Department of Transportation in the city of Baltimore in the US several years ago, I was amazed to learn that before going for a construction, the designs and alignments for each of the road rehabilitation projects would be presented to the stakeholders and neighborhood, not just once, but in three stages until it was approved in a public hearing. This process is time consuming, but can help citizens take ownership of each stretch of development that happens in the country. In any case, development is meant for the people than for the authorities who implement it!
When a road widens, bigger vehicles will be able to ply on that road, which means that more stringent and geometrically aligned design is needed to accommodate different classes of vehicles, but today roads are still being reconstructed following oddly shaped boundary lines of plots and existing serpentine roads, which could lead to an even more cumbersome situation later. And if by chance a change of guard in the government should lead to an abandonment of the project, the city of Kathmandu will go from bad to worse for inhabitation.
After a few disturbing announcements from loud speakers, suddenly there are bulldozers widening the roads, without any public hearing or prior information.
The estimated investment of over 15 billion rupees in the road widening project is not merely an expense, as the amount will ultimately go into our economy. If a third of it is assumed to be labor cost, it will directly generate over 4,950 thousand man days of work, which is equivalent to over 6,500 jobs for over two years. However, our scarce resources could have been used more wisely if the destruction had been minimized by using proper tools for design and implementation.
The level of anxiety and health hazards would have been lesser; the people would have cooperated and shown solidarity with government agencies, and would have taken ownership of the ongoing development. We as stakeholders, and government agencies as regulators, should learn a lesson from the mess that we have created, and should act on time to regulate and systematize the urbanization elsewhere in the valley. We should continue investing such “15 billion rupees”, but to create our Rome than to recreate it again and again!
The author is Director of Business Development & Corporate Affairs at Soaltee Hotel