The beautification charade
- Unless the public demands development that is more than cosmetic fixes, superficial work, like that for the Saarc Summit, will continue
Nov 22, 2014-
Preparations for the Saarc Summit are taking place in full swing. But the public has little expectation from the much vaunted event. The Summit, which has been held in Kathmandu twice before, came and went without making much of an impact. So most people in Kathmandu would describe Saarc Summits as little more than photo-ops.
But this time, there is one change. The government seems to be going considerably out of its way to ‘beautify’ the city for the ocassion. ‘Beautify’ referring, of course, to the cosmetic changes being seen in the city—the widening of a few streets, addition of streetlamps, and most bizarre of all, painting of walls and even private residences that face major roads.
The whole effort seems theatrical to many, and not without reason. Of all the things that we could have spent money on, did we actually need to paint private houses? And streetlamps? What use are they in a city in which power cuts can last up to 18 hours a day? And what is the point of widening streets if the lack of communication and coordination between various ministries and government agencies means that nice roads that are built one day are destroyed a few weeks later? Apparently, the Department of Roads (DoR) and the Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) are engaged in running each others’ projects down. The Road Department complains that almost immediately after a particular road section is completed, KUKL begins to destroy it to repair the pipes present underneath. For their part, KUKL officials complain that officials at the DoR begin road construction without consulting them.
The problem is: both sides are right. And yet, both are missing the larger picture. In a properly run administration, two departments do not run at cross purposes. When one government department blames another, it does not really implicate the accused department (or the accuser). Rather, it implicates the whole system. Clearly, if two agencies of the government as crucial to everyday living as roads and urban water supply are constantly finding fault with one another, it means that the administrative system is grossly dysfunctional.
And this is why the whole idea of ‘beautifying’ the city for Saarc rubs salt on people’s wounds. It is bad enough that chronic governmental dysfunction often makes everyday living a chore for most of us in the city. But why try to mask that by making a few cosmetic changes to the city? Are our government officials so foolish as to think that our visitors will be duped?
A few such changes are not going to change the character of a city that most visitors think of as a modern nightmare. With its ever present dust, shabby transportation infrastructure, ugly and random sprawl of buildings, and lack of open green spaces, Kathmandu just does not have what it takes to be a pleasing, enjoyable city. Recently, travelers ranked our Tribhuvan International Airport as the world’s third worst airport—emphasising, in particular, how dirty it was. The point of entry to Nepal lacks soap. How disgusting is that? But our government officials are not ashamed. No soap in Nepal’s only international airport? So what? We are beautifying the city by painting buildings and adding streetlights. Let the charade go on.
But how long can this go on? As long as people are willing to suffer, apparently. Because as long as the public is unwilling to really challenge leaders to bring true development to the country, as long as they do not demand more than cosmetic change, the political class will not oblige. We will just get more of the same.
Gyawali holds a Masters in Human and Natural Resource Studies from Kathmandu University
Published: 23-11-2014 09:44