16 May, 2012

Pie in the Sky: Apartment living in the Kathmandu Valley

I’ve lived in Kathmandu since i was born  in 1973. It has  gone from a small city of about 300,000 to about 3 million people.  With the upsurge of population has come unregulated growth of huge housing complexes and apartment buildings, much of it rumored to be backed by Maoists.

The sight of giant "modern" buildings rising out of the broken and crushed historical neighborhoods, bulldozed by Baburam Bhattarai's determined march towards modernity, is an odd one. These neighbourhoods would be protected heritage neighborhoods in Spain or Italy, but in Nepal are mere "old" and "feudal" areas to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Baburam Bhattarai, who's gone on record saying: "Give me five years and I will turn Nepal into Bihar", seems to be on track to completely ruin and destroy the historical nature of Kathmandu for some imagined Bihari wonderland of skyscrapers and multi-lane highways which he imagines will turn the switch to prosperity for Nepalis.

These buildings rise, like UFOs, from a city that struggles with city planning,  lack of drinking water, no electricity, lack of earthquake preparation etc.  There has been no attempts to incorporate any environmentally sustainable elements in the way housing is laid out--unlike the government of India which stipulates that a certain percentage of land be left free in residential housing for green space and trees, Kathmandu's nouveau riche are determined to stuff each inch of land with concrete. Everything green is to be "phased out"--except, oddly, in the marketing brochures, where "Green" and "sustainable living" pops up like a fashion ad.

Instead of using local solutions and local architecture, those who went straight for the Norwegian or Danish models of modern living are experiencing distinctly non-Scandivanian issues. Consider the mega-apartment complexes rising around Kathmandu, many of whom appear to have Chinese engineering and construction backing.  On a recent visit to a new apartment colony, I heard the despairing owners who had put down 2 crores each ($200,000 approx) for an apartment talk about how the owners of said colony had delayed the handover by almost two years. I asked about water and electricity. How, I wondered, could this company provide an estimated 200 families with water and electricity in this chronic stage of load-shedding? The man who had put 2 crores in this venture brushed me off impatiently. He
said: “Water is not a problem. They have built big tanks underground.“

Why then hasn’t the company invited his thirteen floors of residents to move in? Is it bad management on the part of the owners? Or should the government be held accountable for allowing the sale of what is clearly unsustainable schemes in its capital city?

This story reminded me of the grand and spooky Chinese city built in a remote part of China. The Chinese love to build, of course. So a construction company apparently built this incredibly modern, fabulously well endowed city in the middle of nowhere, then waited for residents to fill it. Except that nobody ever moved in. The people preferred the more organic city a little further on. Read about China's ghost cities in the Wall Street Journal.

Already the TO LET signs proliferate--it appears that despite Baburam's best attempts to modernize Nepal and Nepalis into high rise living people, they prefer to stick to the small and the practical, at least when it comes to architecture. 

How many of these grand colonies shooting up in Kathmandu’s air will have residents (or even window cleaners to wipe clean that blue glass) in ten years? Or will the owners have to concede defeat and swallow their financial losses and move away to some more profitable concrete jungle?