I am a Nepali who has lived abroad for the past ten years, and have visited Kathmandu about once a year during the period. The annual visits have provided me with the opportunity to gauge the accelerating urbanisation of the Valley and to compare it to other cities of the developing world. In each of my visits, I have had reason for yet more alarm: where is this Valley heading?
Returning home after a day in the city in early January this year, I noticed, for the first time, black soot in my sneeze. It is unnerving to think that Kathmandu is exhibiting the same symptoms as Bombay, which is 40 times larger in terms of population, and Mexico City, 80 times larger and the biggest city in the world. It took these two metropolis more than a hundred years to attain the level of pollution which Kathmandu has picked up within all of three decades.
Like the tourist, I notice the number of new buildings, cars, level of noise, and dust pollution. But I am a Newer, and therefore also have the opportunity to observe close at hand the degeneration of the central city core. The decline is both physical and cultural. There is hardly any debate as beautiful old buildings are demolished to be replaced by monstrous concrete structures. By bulldozing over the old, we are trying to eradicate the traces of our past.
I am reminded of a remark by one of my teachers, who came as a tourist: “If one of your traditional buildings is placed in New York or in any major city of a developed country, it will be a museum on its own. Here you have a whole city…”
One can say without hesitation that Kathmandu Valley’s problems will increasingly be that of the poor. As the mounting air pollution aggravates health problems in the city, the rich can pay for medical bills and hospitalisation costs. The poor have little choice but to inhale the exhaust of cars, trucks and buses and the dust of the roads. Their lungs will be destroyed and life expectancy reduced. And each year, new pharamacies sprout up in Valley.
Much of the mal-development is carried out by the rich for the rich, at the cost of the community. Developers are not bothered to house the poor, and neither, it seems, are the authorities. Governments everywhere have acted with cruelty in demolishing squatter camps, the self-help settlements of the very poor. In the first days of January, the new popular Government of Nepal also moved to bulldoze squatter huts in Kathmandu. No one asked why the rich are not being penalised for their unplanned expansion into the Valley’s space. And no one is demanding governmental accountability for showing no spine on matters of urban development.
The high value of real estate in Paten and Kathmandu is shocking. How is it that the price of land in the capital of one of the world’s poorest countries compares (in absolute terms) with values in downtown Bombay or Melbourne, Australia? I have an overseas dollar income, but cannot even think of purchasing a plot in Kathmandu town. And yet, Kathmandu land continues to be bought and sold. The property values have reached these incredible levels due to land speculation, and it is time that the Nepali Government acted decisively to stop the land price spiral, otherwise the poor will have no choice but to begin to grab urban land for sheer survival.
There is no doubt that Kathmandu will continue to urbanise rapidly in the days to come, barring a man-made or natural catastrophe. No amount of force or regulation will stop the process. And urbanisation does have its advantages. It ushers in innovations and allows the rapid development of the informal sector and economy. The better-informed urban residents act as a trigger for social change and hold Governments accountable to the people. The recent political change in Nepal was in large part a product of urban struggle, and thus of urbanisation.
The question is not whether we need or do not need urbanisation. The challenge is to manage urbanisation and reduce its extreme negative impacts. Growth is inevitable, as is change. But a handful of elites must not be allowed to direct growth for their own ends, as is happening today in Kathmandu Valley. Because no one is going to give it to them, the urban poor — old residents and now — must develop the capacity to exercise their right to participate in the urban development of the Valley.
Manandhar is presently on leave from the Papua Guinea University, where he is Senior Lecturer. He is member of the Habitat International Coalition and the Asian Coalition for Housing.