Saturday Features

Road to nowhere

  • They will tell you it is a universally acknowledged truth that better roads lead to economic prosperity. That prosperity might come at a cost, a premium even, but so does most other things
- Sandesh Ghimire
We, after all, are all too comfortable waiting in line for fuel, for buses, for medicine, for a bureaucrat’s lazy signature. But once let loose on the roads, that saintly patience seems to evaporate like summer dew. Kathmandu has gone to the wolves, and the street is where it most often rears its ugly head

Feb 17, 2018-20 years ago, there were less than 20 houses in Anamnagar,” my mother told me of the time she moved into our neighbourhood, “It was possible to know everybody in the area, along with their extended families.” There were no streets or roads, she said, instead there were plenty of underbrush, and fields where radish and spinach were grown in large quantities, fed by the still-percolating Dhobi Khola.  

Anamnagar, which in Nepali translates to a place without a name, was for all 

purposes the forgotten backend of Singha Durbar, Nepal’s seat of power. A patch of land yet to be named; yet to be claimed and divided.

But slowly, Anamnagar started to be molded into its present shape when the army came in, removed the bushes behind the Singha Durbar premises, then paved a dirt road. After a year, the small road was expanded into a two-laner and asphalt was poured in. Soon, ‘development’ spiraled outward like a gyre. 

Once the road was built, houses started sprouting in Anamnagar the way radishes once did. And with the newly-minted court houses within walking distance, law firms competed against each other to have their offices housed in the newly-built homes. Bureaucrats followed the lawyers, as several auxiliary governmental offices settled along the road that my parents had once witnessed being built. The eastern entrance to Singha Durbar was opened shortly thereafter, which made accessing Nepal’s political and bureaucratic mechanism convenient to those who needed a regular access. The lawyers and bureaucrats coat-tailed behind them. Chiya pasals, stationeries, hawkers and restaurants were its natural side-effects—cold sores borne out of the newly-found stress. 

It is of little wonder then that the development apostles tell you it is a universally acknowledged truth that better roads lead to economic prosperity. That prosperity might come at a cost, a premium even, but so does most other things.Were some of these thoughts swimming in Padam Raj Subedi’s mind when he became a collateral damage to this neighbourhood’s unprecedented boom?One balmy evening in May of last year, Subedi, a retired government secretary, was crossing the street using the zebra crossing in front of the Bajeko Sekuwa in Anamnagar when he was hit by a motorcycle. He was pronounced dead in a hospital a few hours later. His death made headlines, sparked an outrage on social media. But then as the news cycle turned, he was reduced to a statistic. He is one of the 2384 people that lost their life to a road accident in 2017.

Road fatalities have steadily been on the rise in the past decade, thanks to a fatal mixture of bad roads, syndicated transport infrastructure, lack of stringent rules and oversight, and plain road rage. If the data on roads compiled by Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation is any measure then it turns out that in the last decade, more people have lost their lives because of accidents than during the decade-long armed conflict. 

These accidents, however, should not come off as a shock. They are prophesised even before roads are built. There is a standard practice of conducting an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and the purpose of this survey is to identify the merits and drawbacks of a road construction or expansion project. Every single government-approved road construction has done an IEE survey, and they more often than not ritualistically point out that the benefit of expansion/construction is “Appreciation of land value” and “Increase in Trade, Commerce and Development of Market Centers,” and other than the environmental impact, most IEE cite that “improved access due to roads will increase chances of road accidents.”  

Recently, a public discussion tried to focus on the safety issues on the Ring Road expansion, which is presently under construction. Some of the speakers pointed out the basic flaw in the road design, such as the lack of median to separate the lanes and a lack of proper footpaths and cycle lanes. The discussion was marred from the very beginning as many had criticised the organisers for hosting the conversation when the road construction has already moved into is final phase. And, despite the attempts of the moderators, the conversation morphed into a monologue, where the speakers, along with the attendees indulged in blame-game. 

While it is easy to blame the government and their expansive policies for lives lost, maybe we too need to introspect. We, after all, are all too comfortable waiting in line for fuel, for buses, for medicine, for a bureaucrat’s lazy signature. But once let loose on the roads, that saintly patience seems to evaporate like summer dew. Kathmandu has gone to the wolves, and the street is where it most often rears its ugly head.

So, every evening on my way back home from work, when I stand on the edge of the same zebra crossing in Anamnagar where Subedi was hit, a swarm of thoughts often fog my judgment. Crossing the street in this neighbourhood that has no name, is still akin to playing Russian Roulette. The petulant motorbikes and the entitled SUVs don’t remember that blood has been spilled on this unremarkable corner of the Capital. 

Standing here, waiting for the perfect window in between the onrushing traffic to cross the street, you can’t help but feel like a wet rat that has climbed out of a sewer—darting across in a hurry. This road, this city, was not built for pedestrians like me. And I wonder if I too will someday become just another statistic. 

Ghimire tweets at @nepalichimney

Published: 17-02-2018 09:58

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