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Kathmandu lessons

  • Kathmandu’s downfall has many lessons to offer in selection and planning of provincial capitals
- Prawash Gautam

Feb 11, 2018-

In the discourse of picking provincial capitals, the lesson to be learnt from the state of the capital city, Kathmandu, is surprisingly missing. If anything represents the biggest embodiment of the centralised system of polity in Nepal, it is Kathmandu. From political power and administrative functions to economy, businesses, health, education and technology, everything is concentrated in Kathmandu. And so, if we say that the centralised polity failed in Nepal, thus necessitating a need for federalism, it wouldn’t be straying too far to say that the signs of the failure are best presented by the state of Kathmandu itself.

This failure is most tangibly visible in the state of the slum-like ‘metropolis’ that we have created from a place that was so historically, religiously, culturally and naturally rich in the past. And, its journey thus far from being a place so gifted and with such prospects of being developed into a model city—a ‘living museum’ of culture, heritage, history and natural beauty—to the ruinous state it is in today has many lessons to offer in the selection and planning of provincial capitals.

Specifically, Kathmandu’s degradation incites some questions that should be core to the discourse of picking provincial capitals. How did the different religious, historical, cultural and natural characteristics suffer at the hands of disorganised urbanisation, which became synonymous with Kathmandu? And what lessons do these wrongs that Kathmandu has suffered offer in terms of selecting and planning provincial capitals?

Lessons from Kathmandu

It has long been accepted by historians and scholars from across the world that Kathmandu Valley is (or perhaps, was) an exceptional place for history, arts, and architecture. The fact that seven historical and religious sites in the Valley are listed in the UNESCO World Heritage List speaks volumes about this place’s heritage. Kathmandu was once also one of the most fertile lands on earth. Indeed, it was the Valley’s fertile soil complemented by abundant water from Bagmati, Bishnumati and small rivulets cutting through the Valley that enabled the hard-working Newars to reap surplus harvests year after year and, from that, prosper to build one of the most beautiful places on Earth. With the rivers, the rich green hills surrounding the Valley, and the mountains peeking out from behind those hills, Kathmandu was also the most picturesque places on Earth.

And the best manner to preserve this city’s sanctity was to develop it as a city of history, agriculture and natural beauty. But the disorganised concrete structures mushrooming above farmlands and one-time open spaces with no regard to architecture and space, encroachment of temples and public spaces, loss of traditional agricultural farms, loss of clean rivers and rivulets, and obstructions posed by crowded, unorganised structures for cultural-religious events (like the procession of the Machhindranath chariot) today speak loud and clear about the state of Kathmandu now. 

Popular imagination is more inclined to ‘rosy’ pictures of a ‘rich’, ‘developed’ and ‘modern’ Kathmandu, and this is precisely what is encouraging locals and political representatives from several cities to become negligent about the other side of Kathmandu, the side that has much to do with everything becoming centralised within the Valley.

This ignorance of Kathmandu degradation has led to omission from asking important questions relating to provincial capitals. What criteria should a certain place meet when it comes to being designated as a provincial capital? Should a place of high religious, historical, cultural or natural significance be made a provincial capital? If so, what steps should be taken to ensure right planning and management so the ‘soul’ of that place is not encroached upon or destroyed? And equally important, if designation as provincial capital leads to inflow of a large mass of people, how should these cities be planned? It is imperative that locals and their political representatives demanding and lobbying for specific places to be provincial capitals, and those directly involved in deciding the designation of capitals ask these questions.

Right choices? 

Kathmandu’s state today directly leads us to question whether some cities are indeed suitable for being designated as provincial capitals. Should Pokhara, Nepal’s top tourist destination, and a treasure trove of natural beauty with lakes and panoramic mountain views be made a provincial capital? Similarly, should, Janakpur, the centre of the ancient Mithilanchal, and religiously, culturally and historically one of the most important and well-known cities in the Madhes, be made the capital? Or, Should Banepa or Panauti, both in close proximity to Kathmandu and culturally and historically in the same periphery as the Kathmandu Valley be designated as capitals? Or, is Thimi, the best preserved of all ancient Newar settlements in the Valley be declared a capital? For now, the government has already declared Janakpur and Pokhara to be temporary capitals of Province 2 and 4 respectively. And, a contemplation of the lessons from Kathmandu should help us decide if these are the right choices for permanent capitals.

It would seem plausible to argue that the problem does not lie in a place being announced as a provincial capital, but in whether urban planning and management are incorporated by that province’s government and locals to preserve its valuable features. So, it seems that guaranteeing proper planning, and preservation of historical, natural sites should not hinder any place from being designated as provincial capitals.

Yet, two strong reasons, both crucial to the degradation of Kathmandu, tell us that such places being declared provincial capitals is not ideal. One, right urban planning still seems a far cry in Nepal. Two, since provinces are political and administrative centres, they will be sites of expressions of political discontent that are mostly expressed in the form of violent protests and strikes. The provincial capitals are sure to see these as politics will be localised in provinces. These activities will be detrimental to places of heritage that are of religious or natural value.

To ensure that places of historical, cultural, religious and natural heritage are protected, the onus to raise the voice for their preservation first rests on political representatives from those specific places. They should strictly communicate to the locals about the value of those places, and not give in to the pressure of popular sentiment. They should convince the locals that more progress and prosperity will pour in from preserving those places and attracting visitors than from declaring them as provincial capitals. If we fail to read Kathmandu’s clear messages, it will not be long before Nepal loses more places of historical, cultural and natural heritage.

- Gautam writes on contemporary social and cultural issues

Published: 11-02-2018 08:11

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