17 August, 2013

China's Ghost Cities: And Nepal's?

“First of all, there is a “fake prosperity” in many China’s cities. Typically, this is a result of over-exploitation of natural resources and blind capital investment. In some cities, borrowing money and selling land to property developers are the only effective ways to raise funds. But this is not sustainable…” the report added."

Read the Hindustan Times article, from which the quote above, and below, is taken:

“Ordos is the most extreme example of a Chinese housing bubble bursting, with unsold flats, unlet shops and empty office blocks. Most of the new buildings are empty or unfinished,” the report said.

While China's government has finally realized that building and building and building can be a destructive act, when will the Nepali government come to the same conclusion? Turning on the nightly news in Nepal is like looking at a horse race amongst cement companies. Each is eager to give gift vouchers, assurances of patriotism, and now free cash. It appears there are no other growth industries in Nepal at present, except for cement, steel rods, and plastic pipes. Rumors claim all these industries have been seized by Maoists and no doubt receive generous largessse in the form of loans from banks and private finance.

But to keep these industries afloat, the government has to destroy the heritage nature of the Kathmandu Valley cities and all other urban and rural settlements of Nepal, encourage the growth of mega "wedding cake" homes that people imagine will attract renters but are often under-occupied, attract "foreign capital" in the form of investors who have zero interest or knowledge in preserving the historical nature of the Valley or its architecture, and who are happy to build shoddy buildings with nothing more than flimsy iron frames holding glass together in the front, scare away foreign tourists, and in general create inchoate chaos in the name of progress.

I would hazard a guess that Kathmandu's old middle class has all but fled to the USA, Australia and other Western destinations, and this pace will continue at a furious pace until and unless there is a conclusive stop to the cultural destruction happening in the Valley. Walking around the city, I feel it is emptier than it used to be, despite the hordes of people walking around. This is probably due to the large number of empty units of housing and commercial development that are springing up all around. Bhatbhateni, once a neighbourhood of gracious tree-shaded private homes with distinct owners, has suddenly metamorphosed into a vicinity with commercial buildings (mostly empty) and giant clothing shops (with few buyers) and in general an aura of spooky emptiness, despite the hordes of shoppers in the supermarket, and the crazy traffic that hits it around 5:30pm every day. Box-like warehouses with iron frames holding glass together in the front are going up around what used to the residences of foreign Embassy folks, all of whom have now fled to Lalitpur. Walking past at night, I am reminded of the city of Providence, where I went to college, and whose downtown was an empty shell at night as people fled to the suburbs after work. It appears Baburam Bhattarai's New Nepal is already creating a core of urban emptiness even before the economic prosperity can take root. (Thank god the Patan people gave him the finger and told him to screw off!)

Meanwhile, the only signs of life linger on in smaller lanes and gallis that Baburam, thankfully, wasn't able to destroy. These lanes still harbor small shacks and teahouses and bhattis that provide the people of Nepal with a space to rest from the insanity of progress. Not all is lost, however. In private restaurants and newly built bars, political party members and the INGO set continues to party on merrily, mostly in groups of moustachioed men with the occasional female colleague, and where the alcohol, of course, flows most freely. How long this party will continue remains to be seen. Donors continue to pour billions of dollars into Nepal's "poverty reduction" strategies, providing most generous subsidies to this unending party, while most of Nepal's poor continue to flee to the Gulf, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia for basic employment. Surely this state of affairs shouldn't be able to last beyond this year.

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