Vox populi

  • Our cities will never go green until and unless we revamp the country’s deeply flawed ‘representative democracy’
- Manish Pokharel & Bimal Pratap Shah

Apr 28, 2016-

This year on Earth Day, which falls on April 22, leaders from 175 countries, including Nepal, came together at a historic high-level signing ceremony at the UN Headquarters in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement that was approved last year. In a nutshell, the leaders signed the largest deal ever to save our planet. Hopefully, the government of Nepal, after having signed the agreement, will take drastic measures to curb Kathmandu’s pollution that has reached a highly dangerous level.

Unclean, unsafe city

Several studies have already raised concerns about Kathmandu’s worsening pollution.  The Environment Performance Index (EPI) 2016 released by the World Economic Forum ranked Nepal’s air quality at 177th among 180 countries. According to the report, 75 percent of the people in Kathmandu are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution every day. In 2004, Yale University came out with an equally disturbing finding. The Yale Environmental Performance Index 2004 ranked Nepal’s air quality at 177th out of 178 countries, with the level of small particulate matter (PM 2.5) measuring over 500 micrograms per cubic metre—20 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) safe upper limit.

A long-term exposure to air pollution can have serious consequences to public health. Furthermore, poorly designed cities and surrounding environments tend to adversely affect our well-being, because we humans are biologically wired to live close to nature and not in the noisy urban environment of polluted cities. Therefore, green cities are key to happier, healthier, and stress-free living. Realising this fact, many advanced countries have already taken serious measures to transform their cities into healthy and vibrant places. 

Radical steps

Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, bagged the title of the ‘First European Green Capital’ in 2010. It took the city 15 years to achieve this success. Stockholm started the Clean Vehicles programme in 1994 to improve its air quality. Since then, the city has successfully transitioned to clean vehicles and renewable fuels such as bio-gas, ethanol, and electric vehicles. Now, the city is experimenting with even more radical ideas.

Last year, Stockholm blocked the use of motorised vehicles in the city centre for a day hoping to help citizens envision a life with fewer cars on the road. The city plans to do the same every year. Oslo, the capital of Norway, is going a step further. The city is planning to ban cars permanently in the downtown area. Paris, Dublin, Madrid and Brussels also plan to do the same. 

Plastic pollution is also a major problem. It is estimated that the amount of plastic discarded every year is enough to circle the earth four times around. So many cities are trying to cut plastic pollution. San Francisco recently decided to ban the sale of plastic water bottles to reduce the huge amount of waste generated from plastic bottles.  By doing so, it also became the first American city to take such a bold step. The city’s goal is to phase out the sale of plastic water bottles by the year 2020. 

Revitalising democracy

At home, we wonder, if Kathmandu will ever go plastic- and car-free. We have a reason to be doubtful. Our democracy has become somewhat dysfunctional. For instance, a year has passed since the devastating Gorkha Earthquake, but the government has still not been able to provide momentum to the reconstruction process, even though donors have already pledged more than four billion dollars in aid. Therefore, pragmatically speaking, our cities will never go green until and unless we revamp Nepal’s deeply flawed ‘representative democracy’. In case you are wondering what the solution could be, the internet is part of the answer. 

The internet should be used to make the decision-making process more transparent, responsive, and participatory in order to revitalise the country’s democracy. In short,  it is time to embrace deliberative-collaborative e-democracy. It is a type of democracy where the internet is used to involve the entire electorate directly or indirectly in a collaborative policy process. It is a model that provides citizens with an opportunity co-develop friendly policies and laws with the government. 

Deliberative-collaborative e-democracy is not a utopian dream, but already a reality in my countries. Finland was the first country to embrace the new model. Since 2012, the Finnish constitution grants citizens a right to propose legislations if they are supported by 50,000 signatures collected within a six-month period. Furthermore, the constitution requires that the proposals be discussed and put to the vote in parliament—a democracy fit for the 21st century. 

If Nepal’s Parliament is smart, it will make such a provision in our constitution as well.  We believe it will not be hard to collect 50,000 signatures. Parliament would be flooded with proposals pertaining to various issues like green cities, pollution, climate change, bad governance, urban planning, traffic management, ecological crisis, corruption, education, health, drinking water, roads, fuel shortage, sewage, inflation, brain drain, load-shedding, unemployment, cycle lanes, potholes, broadband internet, software industry, venture capital ecosystem, rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles, to name a few.

Pokharel is Head of Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Kathmandu University; Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organizations: A Toolkit’ published by the UN in 2009

Published: 28-04-2016 08:01

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