15 September, 2012

Nepal's Cultural Revolution

Sushma Joshi

In the past few months, the Maoist government decided to start a road-widening program in Kathmandu. Interestingly, they have taken their road-widening program precisely through all the most historic neighborhoods of Kathmandu. From Baluwatar, where the Prime Minister’s office is located, they intend to blast through the old neighborhoods of Bhatbhateni, which is already heavily congested with traffic. Wider roads, it appears, is not conducive to better traffic flow or better neighborhoods. From Bhatbhateni, the road would curve down to Handigaon.

 Handigaon is the oldest known settlement of the Kathmandu Valley, and archeologists have discovered temples and treasures dating back to ancient times. It should be closed off to traffic, like the Patan Durbar Square, and the government should be giving funds to restore its old temples and buildings. Instead, they are appropriating land from the people in the neighborhood so they can have a smooth SUV ride. Despite their grand rhetoric of how they love ethnic cultures, the Maoists seem indifferent to the jyapu community whose historic neighborhoods they are ploughing over. There was no consultation with the communities about whether this road was needed or wanted, of course. This road then continues through Chabel Ganeshthan temple, which is one of the most well-preserved and ancient neighborhood of Kathmandu still intact, and where a busy bazzar still continues, partially shielded from traffic. The demonitionists are already out there, drilling it up.

It seems we have not learnt any lessons from the Cultural Revolution in China where the Maoists destroyed all ancient and precious arts and culture that existed.

There are other ways to solve Kathmandu’s traffic problems, of course. Banning four-wheeled drives in the Valley would be a start. Requiring all government, diplomatic and UN offices to get hybrid or electric vehicles with small widths that fit the streets of Kathmandu would be second. Traffic rules and regulations would be third. But most primary is repairing existing roads, and putting rain drains on either side.

The number of private vehicles have risen in geometrical progression whereas public transport or the government support for it has come to a complete halt since the Janaandolan. Instead, the roads have become clogged instead with even large four-wheeled drives—Pajeros, Scorpios, Ravas—that members of Parliament take as a political entitlement. Just getting the 600 plus one CA members of Nepal to downsize their vehicle possessions and make it mandatory for government employees to ride public transport--sell all those government four-wheeled drives and invest it in public transport and buses—would cut down tremendously on the traffic jams and the chaos of big vehicle trying to run down small pedestrian in tiny walking lane.

Investing in public transport is another must to deal with the ever-increasing volume of traffic. Oddly, none of these overzealous road-builders have yet put a bag of cement on the worn-down driveways of Ratna Park, which sees hundreds of public buses each day.
Maoists want to indicate the change of regime through their control of architecture. But just like their control of the state and the political apparatus, their mega-project of road-building seems to have gone slightly awry. Kathmandu desperately needs a level headed architect to finish the works started in road-building. Maybe this is why Kesav Sthapit has recently been renamed head of the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority to turn around Kathmandu City. Lets hope he and his team are grounded less in grand mega-projects of tallest, largest, biggest and more in small scale solutions appropriate for city whose dimensions and history make “small is beautiful” urban planning the best solution.

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