Print Edition - 2014-07-06  |  Free the Words

Urban chaos

  • The threat to the health and well-being of residents from unplanned urbanisation has become very real
- Chandra Mani Bimoli
Urban chaos

Jul 5, 2014-

A glance from the top of any house in the heart of Damak, a municipality in the eastern Tarai in Jhapa district, makes for a depressing sight. It is agonising to see the hideous concrete structures that almost swallow up the urban landscape. A few remaining patches of green—coconut, bamboo and betel nut groves, jackfruit, peepal and other varieties of trees—are the last few refuges in an increasingly chaotic urban environment. It bleeds the heart to think that in a few years, these shall be gone too. How heart-wrenching, how barren, how devoid of energy and enthusiasm that sight—a virtual wasteland—would be.

Unplanned urbanisation

Damak is just a case in point. The above description more or less holds true for many other urban areas in the east—Mechinagar, Birtamod, Urlabari, Itahari, Dharan and Biratnagar. The urban landscape is no different in all these towns.

In many places, save unfeeling

concrete structures, there is nothing for the eyes or the soul. Some places are

so cramped that it feels as if in a few years, it will be difficult to even find space to breathe. Engulfed by concrete structures, urban residents are having a difficult time coping with hot, humid and stuffy weather conditions during

the summer months. It is said that with climate change, temperatures are

bound to rise in the coming days. ‘Too hot to handle’, an article by

Jane E Brody, throws light on the possible impact of increasing heat

waves. Brody warns: “City dwellers are most at risk during heat waves because paved surfaces, tall buildings and minimal tree cover enhance heat absorption, creating a ‘heat island’.” With urbanisation spreading like wildfire, I cannot imagine what is in store for future

generations.

Thanks to our policymakers, development in the towns of the eastern Tarai, like most other towns in the country, is haphazard at best. There is hardly any coordination between road, water supply, telecom and electricity departments. This holds particularly true for Birtamod, where more than any other town in Jhapa, haphazard urbanisation has taken its toll. Drainage is extremely poor, the streets are littered with dirt and filth and the roads in residential areas are very narrow and poorly maintained. Just imagine what it feels like to walk and drive on water logged and muddy roads during this time of the year. Having been declared a municipality, hopefully, things will improve. Comparatively, Damak and Dharan are much better. The streets are broad, garbage is collected on time and

construction regulations have been in place for long as these two towns were declared municipalities quite some

time ago.

Rising populations

The population of urban areas has increased dramatically in the last decade and a half in the wake of the Maoist insurgency as many people from the countryside fled to towns and cities for security reasons. Many who fled their villages have no appetite to return to the countryside. In fact, there is a strong tendency among people in the villages with sound economic status to migrate to urban locations. This trend is not likely to stop anytime soon.

However, though the population has increased significantly, civic amenities have not kept pace.

Basic civic amenities, like clean and hygienic public toilets, are wanting. In Damak, for a town with a population of over 75,102 (2011), there is one public toilet near the bus stand to the east of the chowk but the conditions are filthy. In spite of the fees collected from those availing of the service, the toilets are hardly cleaned. The broader truth is that public toilets in all of Nepal’s towns, including the capital city of Kathmandu, are filthy.

Houses, shops, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, cell phone towers and monstrous hoarding boards do not make towns. We need public playgrounds, parks, gardens, libraries, recreation centres and other such amenities where people can unwind, particularly in these difficult times when the pulls and pressures of life are difficult and many. It sounds distressing that these places that matter so much to the public in an increasingly urban environment have become a myth. It’s surprising and sounds no less depressing that Damak municipality, which has been praised for its healthy development work, does not have a single public garden, park or library. Municipalities do not seem to care about providing these amenities. The availability of funds may be an issue but first you need vision, energy and enthusiasm.

The victims

Needless to say, people of all age groups are the victims of this mindless urbanisation. The young have hardly any place to play, relax and entertain themselves. Walking around, you can see children playing football, cricket or badminton on the road. Where would they play otherwise? With no public space, children are mostly confined to their homes, hooked to the television and computer. Just imagine the health implications.

The elderly need space to while away their time in clean, green and healthy environment, but unplanned urbanisation has left them with nothing. There are restaurants, bars and eateries, which are increasingly popular among the young, but what business do the elderly have there. Our policymakers have seldom thought about this. After mandating a Rs 500 a month old age pension, they presume that all their responsibilities towards the elderly have ended.

The threat to health and well-being from this monstrous urbanisation is very real. People have already begun to feel the pinch. We need to act now. Mere cosmetic gestures, such as planting a few saplings, cleaning rivers andholding seminars and workshops on World Environment Day in front of the camera, won’t change anything. The sheer scale and magnitude of urbanisation calls for concrete steps. It’s a question of now or never.

Bimoli is a lecturer at Siddhartha College of Management, Damak

Published: 06-07-2014 09:56

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