Print Edition - 2018-11-25  |  Free the Words

Mind the road

  • No substantial actions have been planned to improve air quality and road safety
- Prashanta Khanal

Nov 25, 2018-

Winter is here, and the air in Kathmandu has already started becoming unhealthy to breathe. The air quality will reach hazardous levels during the peak winter days.

The use of cars and motorbikes has been increasing rapidly. This has not only caused traffic congestion and affected the nation’s economy, but also undermined the livability of the city. However, no substantial action has been planned to improve the air quality and mobility. In fact, with government prioritised car-centric development and unmanaged urban growth, mobility woes and air pollution are going to worsen.

It is important to question why the state has failed to prioritise and show concern over these grave issues. Civil discourses have largely, if not entirely, focused on technical solutions, unfortunately. The technical solutions to the problem of air quality and mobility are not complex but simple and straightforward. But we barely look at and analyse the basic substratum—the existing institutions, their apparatus, political will, leadership, and most importantly, the process that guides decision-making and planning.


Rampant impunity

Recently, a cycle user met an untimely death after falling into an uncovered manhole. The incident cannot be regarded merely as an accident; it was murder by the state’s negligence. The general manager of Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani and the director general of the Department of Roads should be held accountable, ousted and punished. But in a state where there is no accountability and people in power enjoy impunity, there is little hope that the responsible officials will be investigated and held accountable. Unless we start holding the institutions and individuals accountable for their actions, and scrutinise processes and policies, the state will run business as usual. Cleaner air and safer mobility will be the farthest dream.  

The urban planning and policy making processes in Nepal are largely top-down, and not much different from how they were in the autocratic Panchayat era. A few persons decide how we live and move in our city. The most vulnerable and marginalised communities are not in the governmental equation; their voices are rarely accommodated in the planning process. The mobility of cars becomes more important than the safety of pedestrians or the health of our kids. To address many of these challenges, including multi-sectoral air pollution issues, coordination among different institutions is key.

It’s not that we do not have adequate policies, the problem lies in the fact that our policies are rarely enforced. Some officials at the Department of Roads are not even aware about the provision of cycle lanes in the transport policy. The policies and actions of the institutions don’t align, and they are often largely guided by the interests of an individual at a higher level.

One fitting example is the road widening campaign being conducted by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) and its inept leadership. No consultative process was followed while expanding the roads. The right of way guideline from the Panchayat era is being used to justify the destruction of houses and heritage sites to make more room for private vehicles.

Media and civil society organisations have largely failed to ask and scrutinise the responsible institutions and officials on the process and approach of planning and decision making. If we opt to ignore it, we have to raise our concern over each and every action of the government. There is no clear definition of urban road and clear jurisdiction. There are many institutions involved in building roads inside the municipality including donor agencies. And there is no urban road design guideline they follow. The city government has almost no jurisdiction over urban roads despite the rhetoric of more powerful local government, and neither does it have the institutional capacity or setup. The chief of the Roads Department has more authority over urban space than the elected mayor.

The Roads Department is run by conventional engineers who have no expertise in designing urban roads and ability to see mobility from urban planning perspectives. They don’t even have basic knowledge about designing a cycle track (for example, Tinkune-Maitighar). The Roads Department treats every road as a highway.

Consultation with stakeholders and communities while designing and planning the roads is not even considered. The department’s attitude is reflected in the road it is located on (Pulchok). The road is devoid of sidewalks and has no traffic calming measures. Unfortunately, it is also the same road that the students of the Institute of Engineering have to walk everyday.

It is naïve to expect safer roads from an institution and its leadership that can’t even run properly functioning traffic lights. The few traffic lights that were installed some months ago at Kathmandu’s intersections (and which completely disregard pedestrians) have stopped functioning, and the traffic police have gone back to managing traffic with hand signals. It is an example of how incompetent our institutions and their leadership are.


Glaring incompetence

While talking about the state of public transportation, it is easier to blame the private sector and syndicates. But we fail to understand that the inability of the government to regulate the private sector and its faulty policy is primarily responsible for the existence of syndicates. The public transportation system has been left entirely to the private sector to develop, manage and regulate. The Department of Transport Management which is, in fact, not more than the vehicle registration department, and the Transport Ministry have neither the institutional setup or capable leadership to develop and regulate the public transport system.

The streets and the quality of the air we breathe reflect the attitude of the government towards its citizens, especially the most vulnerable groups. Unless there is political will to understand the issue, reform the existing institutions, and hold the concerned institutions and individuals accountable, we still need to struggle to breathe and move around the city with safety.


Khanal is an avid cycle user and works on issues related to urban transportation, air quality management and sustainable cities.


Published: 25-11-2018 07:50

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