Print Edition - 2015-08-16  |  Free the Words

Shangri-La

  • If society’s ethics are not aligned with the deep constraints of our planet, it will eventually find itself in an irreversible environmental change that is hostile to our species
- BIMAL PRATAP SHAH

Aug 15, 2015-

We have seen Kathmandu  turn into a dystopia in the wink of an eye. According to Yale University’s 2014 Environ-mental Performance Index (EPI), Nepal ranks 139th out of 178 countries in terms of air quality—an underachievement that echoes incompetency on our government’s part. Successive governments have failed to resolve the problem.

The problem of Urbanisation

Pollution in Kathmandu worsened  after rapid urbanisation in the 90s. Urbanisation is a global trend. It is a good thing if necessary precautions are taken and is planned to address ecological matters, which are largely missing in Kathmandu. For now, city dwellers have been forced to travel in the disorganised city by wearing face masks to protect themselves against pollution.

Masks, however, can hardly block harmful diesel and petrol fumes, because they are not made from an industrial grade material.  What is even more worrisome is the fact that the government seems to be least bothered about it. The Nepali government is either unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution kills almost four million people worldwide every year. Out of those killed, 90 percent are from developing countries. This is an alarming statistic.

The government needs to work with a great zeal and bring about policies and action plans to turn this dystopia into a liveable space. It is evident that private cars, taxis, public buses, big jeeps, and motorcycles are responsible for lethally poisoning the air we breathe. The pollution would have been bearable at times only if driving in the city was a civilised act. The minute we are on the streets, we have to deal with the two and four-wheel wallas with zero civic sense. What most people seem to need is ‘Mapase’ style classes on road ethics.  

The experience is extremely frustrating, and I believe many tourists and expats feel the same. One fine afternoon, I overheard two foreigners talking  about Kathmandu’s traffic: one casually said in frustration, “Driving in Kathmandu is like driving in hell”, and I could not agree more. I believe that they were venting their frustration after having discovered that the inhabitants of Kathmandu were totally opposite of what they might have read before travelling to Nepal. Yes, the Shangri-La of the 70s has already turned into a dystopia.  Furthermore, they must have been overwhelmed by Kathmandu’s rude, uncouth, and hooligan-like drivers. It is very unfortunate that non-stop honking, high beaming, confusion, pollution, and reckless motorcycle riding have become synonymous with the City of Gods.

I am hoping that this year and onwards is going to be different. The government is building smart cities. I don’t know what they have in mind, but I hope that they are also thinking about the internet-enabled autonomous electric vehicles. The new setup will fundamentally re-structure our economy and society. Massive job losses are inevitable, but I for one will be happy with the adjustment, because I will no longer have to deal with the bad-mannered drivers and injurious pollution.

Citizens of cities with self driving cars and zero pollution are bound to be happier and healthier, because environmental problems will be solved, thousands of lives resulting from traffic accidents and pollution will be saved, and the mental stress that comes with driving in Kathmandu will be drastically reduced. Pragmatically speaking, if the government remains clueless about the Digital Age shift, we might end up as the only country still using climate unfriendly fossil fuel guzzling automobiles. But this could be a major tourist attraction as people might flock here to see the ancient ways of doing things—that is, if the government chooses to take this regressive path.

Smart cities

Yes, the digital future of the 21st century is going to be radically different from what we are used to now. The Internet is going to transform everything, including traditional commerce. The Department of Customs is going ultra-high tech to align itself with the digital age shift. Still, I think the Department of Road and the Department of Transport Management should think in that line as well.

The traffic lights have to be replaced with the ones that can be connected to the Internet. The cars, traffic lights, and the roads will communicate with each other using the Internet. The traffic lights will be able to relieve congestion. Road surfaces will supposedly supply electric cars with inductive charging. The roads will automatically alert the city about damages. Robots will be deployed to carry out the maintenance. The pot holes could finally be a thing of the past.

The idea of self-driving eco friendly cars must have startled you. But electric self-driving vehicles are already here. Many auto-manufacturers say that their 2018 models will be able to self-drive 90 percent of the time.

Google predicts that fully autonomous cars will be available to the public by 2020. Analysts predict that there will be 150 million connected vehicles around the world by 2020, and many of them will be able to consume, create, and share web based data.

My imagination has gone into overdrive after learning that autonomous vehicles are ready to hit the streets—at least in developed countries. Imagine the metropolis going smart with compact autonomous vehicles replacing the big fossil fuel guzzling vehicles. The big and expensive vehicles might be an ego boosting symbol in a seemingly hollow hyper-materialistic society of ours, but even children know that they are bad for our lonely planet.

Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the United Nations in 2009

Published: 16-08-2015 10:19

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