I recently made my way up to Swayambhunath after a long hiatus. I’m used to seeing Kathmandu change at a rapid pace, but even the microbus ride out there was surprise. About a thousand kilometers of road seem to be carved out of the ground suddenly, all unpaved, all exuding white dust. Instead of an easy walk through crowded newari toles, we were now bumping past thousands of tacky buildings with high-rise aspirations. The walk up, instead of being a walk up to a quiet, semi-desolate and ancient shrine with grandeur, was now a walk up a trinket-infested, vegetation devoid space to a shrine that has lost its mythic scale in proportion to the inexorable growth that surrounds it. The monkeys seem more disease infected and covered with sores than I have ever seen them. I witnessed a number of angry tribal fights--no doubt the monkeys were taking a cue from humans.
At the top, every building around the shrine was covered with tourist junk, but unfortunately there were no tourists to buy them. A lone French couple looked on at the Third World town sprawl below them and asked some distressed questions. How must it feel, I often wonder, to take an expensive flight out to see a mythical land and find yourself suddenly surrounded by upset monkeys, a dried-out mucky stream that once used to be a river, and a city which has no clue or interest in taking care of the environment? How does your expensive holiday pan out when the lights are out for 20 hours of the day, and there is no water to drink?
Kathmandu is a dying city, said an American friend who has lived on and off since the early nineties, and who recently came back for a visit. What does this mean, you may think. Kathmandu is at the zenith of its urban development. The explosive urban growth of the past decade is fueled by more money than the Valley saw in the past century, probably. Although whether the urban developers who are plopping in these massive buildings think about water, electricity, parking or safety of their residents and neighbours in this earthquake-prone valley is a moot point. Clearly there is no concern for community planning—the neat rows of houses surrounding a plaza square or a temple or a water tap has now given way to houses that may face the other ways on the same adjoining plots. Turning your back to your neighbour wasn’t polite in the good old days but one sees this increasingly in the urban design of our new communities.
Its not as if we didn’t know about new and sustainable technologies that could be implemented low cost on a personal level that could make the city more livable. Make a list of NGO workers who draw big salaries who work on water issues, and train people, and who think about water sustainability. How many of them actually install a water harvesting tank in their back yards, or invest in solar technology? You are more likely to see a 50 inch TV screen attached to their walls, or a SUV in their backyard, than any renewable or sustainable technology.
In the teashop, I get into a conversation with two Newari women who live close to the Swayambhu area. They say they get water once every eight days. “The water bill doesn’t go down, though,” said one, in an ironic tone. “Now all that’s left for us is to do puja to our water taps.” The electricity comes on for four hours—just good enough, she jokes, to turn the water pump on and off. Even the water tankers are booked in advance, she says. She tells me that her cousins, who live in Mangalbazar, are now force to bathe with a bottle of mineral water, and each precious drop is collected to wash the clothes later. Since tankers don’t go through narrow streets, water delivery in this urban core so central to the identity of Kathmandu Valley has become a major problem.
Interestingly, the old dhungay dhara, or stone water tap complexes, which used to receive their water from the Raj Kulo, still function in many places in Patan, providing an unbroken stream of water just as they’ve been doing for centuries. The old tantrics who built the dharas refused to share the blueprints of their water channels—knowing very wisely that all an enemy needs to bring about the downfall of a city is to shut off the water source. People still don’t know where the channels of the dharas lead to, or join up—and this has been a blessing for dharas like Mangal Hiti which continue to function despite the ways in which foundations of new buildings have cut into the channels that bring water from Tika Bhairav, the original source.
No consumer groups have come forward to question the government about water or electricity. If residents continue to pay their normal fees, but receive no water, there would be an outcry in any other city in the world. Not so in Kathmandu. So kudos to Nabindra Raj Joshi who took a delegation out to KUKL and asked them about water supply. Without more public outcry, the state of affairs will continue as always, with all responsibility falling on private citizens to figure out how to get the water.
In the United States, one can see a great many cities which were built up at exponential speed, and then abandoned when the gold mining, or the logging, or the railway building activity stopped. These cities are known as ghost towns. In the Middle East, the boom in construction in many Gulf areas may also end up in this state, since the investment in construction has been out of proportion to the level of population or economic activities in those areas. Will Kathmandu become a ghost town in the future? One can never predict the future but one thing is for sure—if Kathmandu ever feels the full shock of that dreaded-for earthquake, it will take a great deal of time to recover to its former size. For residents who survive, rebuilding may be shelved in favor of a new place of residence.
Kathmandu may recover some of its former charm if state and governance became decentralized, making it less important for every national of Nepal to live here. And cities in the Terai could be built up with more foresight and urban planning, taking some of Kathmandu’s centralized capital and real-estate investment flows towards the south.
But many young people just can’t wait. My tea-drinking companion tells me she is here for a special purpose. Her two children are about to migrate to Australia, and she has come to Swayambhu to do a special puja for them. For many young Nepalis, Kathmandu, inspite of its overpopulation, has already become a ghost town in terms of long-term prospect or sustainability. Greener pastures lie elsewhere.