“Focus on urbanisation should be towards people-centric planning approach”
How do you view the government’s new plans for planned urbanisation?
Planned urbanisation has become a priority development agenda for the government and political parties lately. This is because of the rapid urbanisation due to the sharp increase in the urban population. This has a political dimension too as a large number of voters reside in urban and semi-urban areas and the political parties have promised to address their problems. The number of urban municipalities has grown to 263 at present which was 58 in 2014 showing the exponential growth of the urban population. Currently, 42 percent of the country’s population is believed to be residing in urban areas.
There are multiple factors related to the sharp rise in the urban population. The increasing remittance-fuelled spending capacity of Nepalis is one of the reasons due to which the remittance receiving rural population has been gradually migrating to urban centres seeking better health care, education and other basic facilities. Similarly, the expanding road connectivity and establishment of new economic corridors across various sections of the major highway lines also contributed to this.
Settlement patterns have been changing with the expansion of roads and transport leading to an increase in the price of land near the major highways and the establishment of new urban areas.
Urbanisation is an obvious phenomenon given all these factors. Nevertheless, it has to be planned and systematic. Haphazard and unsystematic urbanisation will lead to many problems. In the capital valley, for instance, there is no further scope to expand the urban areas of Kathmandu and Lalitpur metropolitan areas. There can only be vertical expansion in the residential spaces. We can now only improve the situation in these areas. So, we need to move away from the city areas to develop townships with modern facilities.
The government has announced it will develop new cities across the country. This is a challenging task.
There are legal, political, social and technical challenges to overcome. The main challenge is to spend the allocated budget. Our agencies are very weak in terms of institutional capacity. They face various problems in procurement and contracting processes. Similarly, the contractors that win the contracts are also weak in terms of work capacity. There are also problems related to land acquisition and compensation and coordination between multiple stakeholders. Just look at the ongoing Tripureshwor- Kalimati-Kalanki-Nagdhunga road widening project. It has contractors, a sufficient budget has been allocated and related government agencies are present for the timely completion of the project. However, the project has been moving at a snail’s pace.
At the same time, political parties also need to come forward with active support so that the projects are completed without much hassle.
There are also problems due to judicial orders. The progress of the projects such as expansion of roads where the authorities put in a lot of effort generally comes to a grinding halt if someone files for a stay order at the court. There are many instances where such projects have not moved ahead for months or even for years. The fate of many projects hangs in the balance due to the legal issues. Similarly, the unnecessary interference of Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and parliamentary panels at times also obstructs the progress of the projects.
The development initiatives need to move away from the usual pattern which has been continuing for decades. All barriers of development in technical, social, political and legal aspects need to be removed to ensure the smooth implementation of the projects. Now the elected representatives have come after a significant gap to lead the local bodies. Nonetheless, they won’t be able to work and implement the urban development work without capacity building despite the governing powers given to them by the constitution. Therefore it is important that infrastructure development and institutional development should move ahead in a parallel manner. Elected representatives, local and central level government employees as well as private contractors and consultants should undergo capacity building and training programmes.
We can study the urban development initiatives of India, China and other South Asian countries as references. India, for instance, has moved ahead with the development of 100 smart cities throughout the country as declared by premier Modi. The projects are going on smoothly due to the effective governance. The governments in local, provincial and central levels have been coordinating well to develop the cities. There are numerous incompetent municipal bodies in India as well. But the central government has been providing all the support it can to increase the level of competency of the local governments. We can also seek support in technical, financial and various aspects of implementation from other countries. A country like India has also been receiving support from Japan, Singapore and European nations to develop smart cities.
To spend Rs 600 billion in urban development projects seems to be a herculean task in our context. How do you think the government can properly spend the money?
The problem is in our capacity to spend such a huge amount of money. It is the proper planning and other associated elements such as lack of human resources that hinders the agencies to spend the allocated budget efficiently. Government offices such as the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC) and Department of Roads have been working with a deficient workforce over the years. For instance, DUDBC’s development side budget was Rs 50 million in 2001. In order to spend the budget efficiently, an org chart was developed to restructure the organisation reducing the total number of staff to 700 from 1,000. Now the annual budget of DUDBC has reached around Rs 10 billion but the workforce has reached about 1,000. With various programmes operational in the urban development sector, the workload of the department has increased 20 times compared to 2001 but the workforce has risen by just 30 percent. Had there been a 10 fold increment in the workforce in the department, the sluggishness could have been avoided to some extent.
Similarly, we also need to focus on capacity enhancement of private sector agencies particularly in the areas of consulting and contracting. Full government support is required in this regard as many private sector firms in the development sector themselves cannot enhance their institutional capacity as many there have to work with low profit margins and overheads. The government over the last few years has taken some positive steps to facilitate the private sector development firms such as reducing import duties on machinery and equipment. This has caused companies to buy the necessary heavy equipment and machinery in plentiful numbers. Nonetheless, they do not have the human resources to execute development projects efficiently. Their workforce, be it low-skilled, semi-skilled or high-skilled, have gone to Gulf nations, Malaysia, South Korea, Europe, United States and Australia. So it is up to the government to enhance their institutional capacity. The existing workforce of the private sector companies needs to be provided with the necessary procedures, preparing standard documentations and ideas in construction management which the government officials have learned here or abroad. This will eventually lower the level of chaos usually seen in urban development projects.
There is also a need for all concerned development agencies to realise their responsibility and accountability. For instance, projects such as the ongoing Melamchi pipeline installation alongside the road widening are blamed for the high-level of air pollution that Kathmanduites are presently facing. It is primarily due to the various legal hurdles along with inefficiency of the contractors who are engaged in the projects. Nonetheless, the Melamchi Water Supply Project and the Department of Roads have repeatedly given clarifications about the situation. It is the responsibility of the contractors to minimise the environmental impacts while constructing the projects as per the contract agreements.
It has become normal to follow the practice of ‘privatisation of profit, socialisation of cost’ in urban development up until now. This mindset will change only when all stakeholders keep the factors of responsibility and accountability in their minds.
In the past irregularities and violations happened in urbanisation. Can you list some of them? How do we stop this from happening in the new urbanisation approach?
Some innovative policies in urban development were introduced during the Panchayat era such as the Guided Land Development (GLD) which has continued since its implementation three decades ago. Many land pooling projects were started across various parts of the country back then. There were also building bylaws for proper construction of houses. Similarly, the categorisation of land for settlement and urban development as per the permissible and non-permissible land use policy was also introduced. The policy designated the flood prone low lying areas for agricultural land and greenery. However, such initiatives were ignored after the democratic change of 1990 which eventually promoted uncontrolled, unregulated and haphazard urbanisation. This also led to the encroachment of the right of way of highways, roads and violation of height restrictions enforced on buildings.
The visibility of natural scenery, for example, was also severely affected as a result of the haphazard construction of structures. For instance, there was an arrangement in Pokhara introduced with an aim to make the Fewa Lake visible from all houses built at the Lakeside area. There was another arrangement in place to uniformly maintain the height of the buildings so that the view of Mount Machhapuchhre would not get obstructed from any corner of the city. Nevertheless, the arrangements were violated and the views were obstructed and Pokhara city is rapidly becoming a concrete jungle. In most of the cases, the government failed to take action against the violators. It was weak governance that caused the violators to get away encouraging other people to follow suit.
The decade long insurgency followed by unrest in different parts of the country are the other reasons for the haphazard urbanisation. There was an exodus of people from the rural areas towards the urban areas due to security concerns. But the successive governments largely failed to manage the flow of people by providing them with proper infrastructures in the city areas. It was also due to the absence of elected bodies in the local levels for a considerable long time and also because of an unstable and inefficient bureaucracy.
You must have faced various hurdles when trying to implement the urban development projects when you were at the Ministry of Urban Development. Can you share some of your experiences in this regard?
We used to forecast the problems that might come while implementing the projects. Since the chances of people trying to stop the projects by filing cases at the court were also high back then, we used to look at the legal aspects of the implementation of the projects at the earliest and consult with the judiciary and design our programmes accordingly. This would lower the risks related to the legal aspects and make our authority and mandate clear. We also used to talk to the CIAA whether the anti-graft body has any objection regarding the construction of the projects.
As per past experience, the lack of proper procurement planning by the agencies also is a major problem in project development. It has become normal for the agencies to improperly go with procurement works thus delaying the projects. The delays add to the overall cost of the projects ultimately making it a financial burden on the citizens.
Likewise, problems also arise due to the improper engagement with the locals. This is clearly observable in the ongoing road widening drive in the capital valley. The implementation of projects often comes as a shock to many people as the authorities mostly fail to explain the objective and benefits of the projects to them. To lower the chaos, proper rapport building with the people affected by the projects is required. Similarly, management of social and environmental issues should be planned in the preparatory stage to smoothly run the projects. In Nepal, authorities try to address such issues only after the construction of projects move ahead.
The provisions in the Public Procurement Act are often termed as bottlenecks to the quality of the infrastructural development as the authorities are required to award important procurement contracts to the contractors who quote cheaper prices. What are your views on this?
The existing Public Procurement Act was amended last year and I don’t think that any further revision of the Act is necessary at the moment. Having worked for a whole year in a team when the Bill was being formulated, I know the background and the rationale of the provisions incorporated in the Act.
In Nepal, it has become habitual for many to blame others to hide their incompetence. The PPA has provided many outlets and options to procure civil works, consulting services and goods. However, the authorities do not have specific planning before the start of the work process to award the contracts. For instance, there are provisions to directly award specific contracts for the procurement of civil works, consulting services and goods of infrastructure development projects instead of engaging in the bidding process. The bureaucrats, politicians and contractors all only know about the bidding process popularly known as ‘tendering’. People just choose the easy and comfortable option without exploring other procurement ways that are mentioned in the Act.
Nonetheless, we should hold some optimism for the future in terms of the full implementation of the procurement law. It’s been a decade since the Act came into effect. We have not been able use the different provisions of the Act. The processes to prepare standard documents and evaluation procedures have just started. The training sessions which are being provided to the related officials have shown some positive results in this regard. Past experiences have shown that it takes around a decade for a law like PPA to get fully activated. Therefore, proper understanding of the law is required. Also, development agencies need to increase their risk bearing capacities to make the things happen.
What role must politicians play to make this ambitious urban development plan a success?
The politicians must play a role at both local and central levels. The policymakers need to ease the legal and other various types of hurdles to execute the plans in urban development. They should have a proactive approach so that the obstacles are removed and the development of the projects doesn’t get delayed. Similarly, political leaders also need to instruct their cadres to facilitate the smooth implementation of the projects locally. There are various instances where projects have stalled for a considerable period due to obstructions created by political leaders and their cadres at the local levels.
Likewise, the political opposition also has an important role to play in the urban development drive. It is an irony that the developmental works are considered to be only the responsibility of the government and not of the opposition. The opposition in many cases creates obstacles and hinders the execution of development related projects. Now the time has come for us to learn from the past mistakes to make this urban development plan a grand success. There should be a common minimum agenda for development which should be known to the public.
What vision of urbanisation do we need to have for the next 20-30 years?
There should be a national policy accepted by all major political parties in place to determine use of land for settlement (both in urban and rural areas), agriculture and forest. Haphazard and clustered settlements like the present will lead to many problems in the future. Similarly, there should also be city expansion plans as the urbanisation is likely to grow in the future. The bylaws and the guidelines should be introduced in this regard. The municipal authorities also need to implement the existing standards for physical and social infrastructure in the urban areas. For example, there are standards for building schools, health centres and other necessary infrastructures in a particular urban area with a particular population density. But we have not been able to implement the standards. For instance, the land plotters and housing developers mostly leave unusable pieces of land as open spaces.
Similarly, settlements should have a proper layout of roads, pavements and other transport infrastructures. Generally, at minimum, a four-lane road is required in all parts of a city to maintain smooth vehicular movement. Planners should also think about establishing an efficient public transportation system such as bus rapid transit (BRT) and mass rapid transit (MRT) for long-term sustainability of the cities. Likewise, areas with favourable weather conditions like the Kathmandu Valley can be developed as ‘walkable cities’ with broad pavements enabling pedestrians to walk comfortably. Broad and well-maintained footpaths also add to the beauty of the urban centres and leave a good impression on the lives of the city dwellers.
Urban centres are the areas of economic productivity. The lack of proper planning leads to various problems such as declining health in citizens and a lower quality of life, and problems such as social unrest which will eventually cause a decrease in productivity. It is also important to accommodate people who arrive at the cities to work and live. Therefore, now onwards, the focus should on a people-centred planning approach.
“Development of new cities will move ahead at full speed”
What differentiates the Building Construction Code from the Basic Standards on Settlement Development, Urban Planning and Building Construction 2015?
The code and the standards are the two major rules and regulations for constructing structures in the urban areas. The Building Construction Code focuses more on the safety of the structures. It includes requirements regarding safety, facilities and comfort levels of any type of structure such as residential, industrial, and commercial and hospital buildings. It also deals with the surrounding environment. The code includes provisions regarding the height of the building as per the size of the land plot, how much open space and set back area should be left while constructing the structure(s). Safer buildings are only constructed when we keep both the code and the guidelines in mind.
What are the rules for building constructions according to the geography?
The Building Construction Code should have been different for different areas. But in Nepal, the same code has been applied throughout the country. We are thinking about introducing arrangements for constructing buildings according to the type of land. Sixty percent of the work in the “Kathmandu Valley Earthquake Re-assessment Project” has already been completed. For now, we are carrying out research on the damage caused by previous earthquakes and the potential damage that might occur in the future. According to the newly revised standards, this will also help us understand what sort of damage can be caused in different types of buildings. The Building Code 2015 has already been implemented. Also, with the support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Risk Sensitive Land Use Plan for Kathmandu Valley has also been prepared. The plan has already been implemented by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority. The amended Basic Standards on Settlement Development, Urban Planning and Building Construction 2015 has already been presented to the Council of Ministers for approval. On this basis, we are studying the possible changes in the Construction Code. Similarly, we are also studying the changes required in the Construction Code for Terai and hilly regions.
How is DUDBC monitoring the implementation of the Basic Standards on Settlement Development, Urban Planning and Building Construction 2015 and the Building Construction Code 2015?
The standards and the code have been implemented in many local levels of the country. We have formed the Standards Implementation Facilitation Committee under the coordination of the secretary of the Ministry of Urban Development. The committee helps to amend the provisions if there are difficulties in implementing the standards and the code. The new standard has been amended twice since its implementation. We have also been receiving suggestions from various municipal authorities in this regard.
How effective do you think is the government policy in terms of enforcing standards for constructing earthquake resistant buildings?
The new rules have highlighted the utilisation of land. Utilisation of land means analysing whether the regions are safe for construction or not and what type of structures can be built there. We have formulated the Risk Sensitive Land Use Planning after mapping and identifying areas prone to earthquakes, liquefaction, landslides, floods and overall weak geography. Now there is a provision in place to give construction permits as per the standards and the code.
The municipalities are providing construction permits according to the standards and the code. We believe that the results of the implementation of the new rules will be visible in the urbanisation process soon. There have been a lot of technical improvements in the reconstruction of homes and other structures destroyed or damaged by the earthquake.
Earlier, housing developers used to leave unusable pieces of land and areas near river banks as open spaces. But now developers are required to leave open spaces at the centre where the settlements are developed and make such areas accessible to all. It has even mentioned how much area should be left for open spaces. This makes sure that the open spaces are easily accessible in case if a disaster occurs like an earthquake. The new standards have also determined the size of the road according to the size of the plot. As per the rules, plotting of the land will not be allowed if a plot cannot be reached by a six metre wide road. This wasn’t the case before. The Kathmandu Valley Development Authority won’t even approve the house design unless these are met. With the recently held local elections, elected representatives are in the process to lead the local bodies. When local representatives are elected in all regions, it will be even more convenient to implement the rules related to systematic urbanisation and construction standards in the local levels.
How is the department developing urban development strategies for the capital valley and other parts of the country?
The 20-year Development Plan for Kathmandu Valley has already been prepared. It includes proper development of residential and agricultural areas. But things haven’t moved ahead according to the plan. Kathmandu Valley has already been urbanised entirely and many areas need to be improved and redeveloped.
We are in the process of formulating the Integrated Development Plan for the development of the 70 new municipalities. The plan will avoid the past mistakes in urbanisation. We will also prepare similar plans for 70-80 additional municipalities in the upcoming fiscal year. The plans for the proper development of all municipalities of the country will be ready by the next 2/3 years. After that, it will be easier for the local bodies to implement the plans.
What are the plans of the department for the development of the newly announced four satellite cities in the valley?
We have been prepared for this. The Ministry of Urban Development has moved ahead with the plans in association with the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority. We have also an important role to play in this regard. The plan is to develop new cities in all four corners of the valley. Following the announcement, the plotting of 100,000 ropanis of land in the east of the valley and 10,000 ropanis each in the other three directions have been stopped for the next three years. Doing so is important to develop the satellite cities in a planned and proper manner.
Developing new cities is a huge task. Foreign experts and consultants are being appointed to implement the plan. These new cities will be developed as green cities making them livable, systematic and safer with ample facilities for the residents. Urban centres can only be called smart cites if they have all the facilities in place. It could take 40 to 50 years for a city to transform into a smart city. The government is also planning for land pooling at proposed new cities outside the valley as well.
The government has announced it will develop 20 new cities along the Mid-Hill Highway and the Postal Highway. What is the progress in this regard?
We have been working at 10 areas where new cities will be built in the Mid-Hill Highway region for the last 5/6 years. The work has sped up especially in the last couple of years. Among the 10 areas, six have already been approved for land pooling by the government. The detailed reports for land pooling for two cities have already been submitted to the ministry. Similarly, a detailed study for developing 10 new cities along the Postal Highway will start from the next fiscal year.
The issues of the urban poor aren’t getting much attention. How do you think the problems of the poor people residing in the urban areas can be addressed?
The problem of slum dwellers will not be solved by providing land to them. We need to be able to provide them with houses to live in. A commission is required to properly identify landless squatters in the Kathmandu Valley.
The Ministry of Poverty Alleviation is all set to distribute identification cards to such people. We could plan to provide residences to those who are really in need. The constitution has guaranteed houses to all homeless people. We have also been moving ahead with the Janata Residency Project since 2066 BS. We have built around eight thousand housing units until the last fiscal year. We have a target to construct 20 thousand homes by the end of the current fiscal year. We are trying to complete the construction of a 228 unit multi-storey building at Ichangunarayan of Kathmandu within this fiscal year. This will be a trial project to provide housing units to the landless squatters and low-income people of the Kathmandu Valley.
Similarly, 14,000 housing units are currently under construction and surveys for an additional 4,000 units have already been conducted across different parts of the country. The selection process of the benefactors of this project is very scientific and it will take some time to conclude. We aim to build an additional 25,000 houses in the upcoming fiscal year.
Similarly, programmes to construct residential units for government employees and elderly citizens have also moved forward. Nonetheless, there are some problems when it comes to engaging the private sector in such projects. We haven’t been able to provide land to developers to construct apartments for the target groups.
As Nepal moves towards federalism, how is the department working to realise the concept of developing metro cities, smart cities and mega cities?
We are currently working on developing the ‘city regions ‘. The idea is to develop mega cites across the country. For example, the region covering the Kathmandu Valley to Paanchkhal of Kavre can be developed as a ‘city region’. We have identified seven such areas in various parts of the country. Building these mega cities in each province is in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Under this, one is Biratnagar, Duhabi, Itahari and Dharan corridor, another will be Kapilvastu, Lumbini, Bhairahawa, Tilottama and Butwal. Other is Pokhara, Lekhnath, Dulegauda and Damauli. These have been identified as proposed mega city areas. Also identified is Nepalgunj-Kohalpur corridor and Dhangadi-Atariya and Mahendranagar area. The Asian Development Bank has expressed its interest to supporting the plan. The department has established the Urban Planning and Development Center as a think tank to move ahead with the city region plan. The center will present its study findings to the Ministry of Finance and the National Planning Commission. This will make easier to select the projects and implement the plans.
The National Urban Development Strategy 2016 has just been implemented. How will this impact urban development?
The implementation of the Urban Development Strategy 2016 will help to evaluate and assess the dimensions of urban development. Likewise, the Urban Development Policy 2007 is already in place. The strategy and the policy will enable us to determine the investment needs in urban development. The donor agencies have been requesting us to draft such a policy. Now with the implementation of the policy and the strategy, we are hopeful that foreign investment will come in urban development projects.
Only the private sector is engaged in developing high-rise buildings. What are the strategies and plans of the government in this regard?
The Ownership of Joint Housing Act was implemented in 1997 for the systematic development of residential apartments. High rise residential apartments are considered as major components of big cities in the modern day world. It won’t take much time to deplete the land that is left in the Kathmandu Valley if we do not adopt the residential apartments for housing purposes. Nevertheless, it is important to discuss how tall a building can be in Kathmandu as the valley is situated in a high earthquake risk zone.
It is also important to note that constructing buildings and other structures will be costlier on weaker land. That is why the Risk Sensitive Land Use Planning should be used to determine the areas suitable for apartments. Many people feared to live in apartments after the 2015 earthquake. Nonetheless, there was no structural damage to the apartments during the earthquake. There was only ‘cosmetic damage’ to the structures that can be easily repaired or reconstructed. There are not even observable cracks in the buildings that were built according to the Building Code. Now as apartment sales have begun to gather pace again, we need to further promote and adopt the modern housing solution by following the rules and regulations to ensure safer structures.
Kathmandu Metropolitan City has also announced to develop old settlements as heritage cities in the Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere. However, such dense settlements are difficult to develop due to various reasons. How is the department working in this regard?
The second amendment of the standards has incorporated provisions regarding the Heritage Settlements. There are a number of old settlements in the Kathmandu Valley such as Sankhu and Khokana. Similar settlements are found outside the valley as well. We have aimed to develop such settlements conserving their historical, religious and cultural heritages. The new strategy requires land to be allocated for at least a six metre wide road in a new settlement. But we cannot implement such rules in the old quarters. We need to develop the areas sustainably even if the places have roads with a width of four metres. There are provisions to develop such settlements conserving the heritage by constructing the houses in traditional ways by maintaining the height of the houses uniform. The government has also defined rules to identify heritage areas which have also helped in the post-quake reconstruction.
We need to work without displacing anyone and conserving the heritage in such areas. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City should take the initiative in this regard. The absence of elected representatives in the local bodies stopped us from moving ahead with such approaches in the past. But as the local representatives have taken charge now, it will be easier to implement the plans with the participation of the local residents.
“Past mistakes in urbanisation can be good lessons for new urban centres”
How do you observe the current discourse on urbanisation that has started especially after the government announcement to develop new cities in the Kathmandu Valley and areas adjacent to the Mid-Hill and Hulaki highways?
The positive aspect of the discourse is that urbanisation has been recognised as a phenomenon happening in Nepal which requires proper planning. Earlier the initiatives used to be focused in rural development as Nepal was known to many as ‘a country of villages’. At present, the urbanisation is happening throughout the country in such a fast pace that the attention of the government, policymakers and general public has been drawn towards planned approaches.
Similarly, the priority of the government has shifted towards the decentralisation of urbanisation. It seems that the government and the policymakers now have realised to some extent that the Kathmandu Valley-centric urbanisation drive has led to many problems. This change in the thinking is positive as it can spur the development of the overall country.
However, there are also some concerns regarding the proposed development of the four satellite cities in the capital valley. It is said that the carrying capacity of the Kathmandu Valley is close to exceeding or might have exceeded. The carrying capacity of a particular area is detrimental to the availability of natural resources, space and basic infrastructures and services that can be provided to the populace. With the development of new cities, more people will be added to the valley which I think will be unsustainable. Moreover, the development of satellite cities within the capital valley doesn’t make sense. The proposed satellite cities should be developed outside the valley. True sense of decentralisation of urbanisation will only be established in Nepal when areas other than Kathmandu will have proper infrastructures to meet the needs of city dwellers.
Nonetheless, the overall urbanisation plan looks positive. The details are yet to come and the implementation side will determine the success of the plan. If done correctly, it will have lasting impacts on the country’s economic, social and environmental development.
What reasons do you think are behind the degrading urban environment in Nepal?
We didn’t really understand the process of urbanisation and let it happen on its own. We need to look back at the historical context of urbanisation in Nepal. Kathmandu Valley flourished with various urban centres particularly in the Malla era. The people back then realised the limitations of the valley in terms of available resources and environment and planned the cities accordingly. For instance, settlements of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur were all developed as compact settlements on the hillocks, whereas the lower areas were used for agriculture. Due to this, use of land for settlement purposes was less, service provisions were more efficient and brought the community together. From economic, social and environment perspectives, the cities were well planned. The people also intelligently managed the available resources. They knew water was a scarce resource and built ponds within the city areas to collect the rainwater. The collected water used to be channeled through the aqueducts reaching out to ‘dhunge dharas’ (traditional stone water taps) that are still found in the old cities. The distribution of water was not just the physical aspect of the urbanisation. Water was distributed as a free commodity which shows that the people had recognised the social or equitable aspect of the highly important resource.
The old cities were developed with ample open spaces that can still be seen. The ‘bahas’ were the courtyards that serve as communal spaces in the compact settlements. Similarly, extended areas that are now known as durbar squares were for accommodating large numbers of people for big festive, cultural gatherings and also to shelter people in natural disasters like earthquakes.
Nonetheless, we gradually began to forget that traditional and pragmatic aspect of urban development when the Kathmandu Valley began to rapidly urbanise over the last 3-4 decades.
Managing the increasing population of the urban centres is becoming increasingly difficult in our country. How can this be done in the new context of urbanisation?
We need to be cautious while planning the new cities. The historical and traditional contexts can be very useful if we aim to make the urban areas livable. The planning of the cities should be done in such a way that the overall urbanisation process will be sustainable, economically viable and socially equitable. The old values in this regard are still very relevant. For example, the roads should be built not only for vehicles. We can see that the widening of roads over the years has narrowed the pavements making it more and more difficult for the people to walk.
It should be kept in mind that the streets are also for pedestrians, differently abled, senior citizens and children. The roads constructed in Kathmandu during the medieval period and afterwards were meant for people to walk on. The same value is applicable in today’s context. Therefore, in order to make the roads free of congestions and sidewalks walkable, mass transport system needs to be promoted. Similarly, the idea of compact settlements is still valid. The delivery of services can be efficient in compact cities. For instance, services like waste management and water distribution are much easier and cost-effective compared to scattered and clustered settlements.
Similarly, the traditional ideas on utilisation of resources are still applicable. In the old days, there were separate spots called ‘saagas’ at the corners of the courtyards meant for placing household waste. Such spots used to be considered as an essential part of the urban fabric. The word ‘saaga’ is made of two words ‘sa’ and ‘gaa’ in the Newari language which means compost and pit respectively. It was not just a dustbin but a recycling bin. This idea recognised that waste is a resource which should be recycled and the person producing the waste has a responsibility. Now it may not be possible to bring ‘saaga’ back but it can be introduced in a modern form to deal with today’s waste disposal needs.
We need a fusion of traditional techniques and modern technology so that efficient, effective and environmentally sound cities can be developed.
Traffic management has become a herculean task for the authorities in areas like the capital valley in recent years. How can this problem be tackled?
It is like the efficient use of space to manage things when a small house becomes crowded with the growing number of family members. Not only the main roads, the alleys and small streets in most of the old quarters of Kathmandu have become congested due to uncontrolled vehicular movement. There have been various traffic management initiatives that have not yielded any positive results.
In this context, we need to look at and learn from the practices in other cities of the world. Gamla Stan, the old town of the Swedish capital Stockholm, for instance, has alleys and inner streets smaller than the old quarters of Kathmandu. But the town has employed some of the efficient techniques in traffic management. The authorities have taken the cars out and made it a tourist friendly area for walking. Bicycles and a limited number of electric vehicles have been permitted. Melbourne of Australia has adopted similar policies for the old parts of the city. Gangtok of the Indian state of Sikkim has also pedestrianised main roads like the MG Street making the areas livable and environmentally sound. A large number of cities in the world have adopted such policies. The problem with the New Road area of Kathmandu, for example, is that the whole vicinity has become overcrowded due to the lack of proper parking spaces for vehicles. The environmental quality and living standards there have largely degraded and children and elderly people are confined to their homes.
Different studies have shown the importance of open spaces the world over in terms of economic, social and environmental benefits. Most recently a major broadway at Times Square in New York was declared vehicle free and businesses profited significantly. Suddenly, people who used to take lunches to their offices started to reach out to nearby eateries for meals. Other businesses in the area also began to flourish due the increasing movement of pedestrians.
What are the effective means of travel in urban centres?
We need to promote walking, bicycling and the mass transit system as a means of travelling in an urban area like Kathmandu where the average travel distance is less, air pollution is high and it is costlier for average citizens to own vehicles. It can be applicable for other cities outside the capital and the proposed new urban centres as well. The strategy can be different for cities at different regions but the idea remains principally the same.
Foreigners come to the cities of the Kathmandu Valley to observe the world-class heritage, not to ride cars. It is pretty awkward for foreign or domestic tourists to get disrupted by the movement of vehicles while they are observing the heritage sites or looking to buy souvenirs at the shops. The use of vehicles other than for emergency purposes needs to be banned in areas like New Road, Basantapur and Thamel. Similarly, an efficient public transportation system should be developed outside the core city areas. Likewise, the Kathmandu Valley can be developed as an area for bicycling. The weather here is good for bicycling even in the summer season. I am not saying that people should be barred from owning cars and motorbikes. But we have to resort to these solutions to fix the problems that have been created due to years of mismanagement.
Necessary infrastructure should be developed keeping the general people in mind. Take for example the ongoing widening of the Kalanki-Koteshwor section of the Ring Road which is only focused on vehicular movement. I think it will be very difficult for people to cross the road after the completion of the project. Just three overhead crossing bridges have been constructed over the 11 kms. People have to walk over three kms to find a bridge to cross the road. This situation is likely to increase road accidents resulting in injury and deaths of pedestrians as they are forced to cross the road at their areas of convenience. This has happened during and after the construction of the six-lane Tinkune-Suryabinayak road section where 12 people lost their lives even before the road was inaugurated. After many more deaths and injuries, bridges at various locations of the highway were installed for pedestrians to cross the road. The deaths and injuries were due to the fact that the road connecting Kathmandu and Bhaktapur was designed as an urban highway which is not appropriate. If we follow the globally-accepted standards, the roads in urban centres should be designed such that the maximum speed limit of vehicles is 40 kms/hr. Even from the safety perspective, it is an international norm in traffic management that if a street is shared by pedestrians and vehicles, then vehicles should not run at high speeds on such roads. People-centric development approach is the only way to avoid the mistakes and malpractices that were done in the past.
What can be done to improve the condition of the existing roads?
Expanding a road to take care of the traffic congestion doesn’t make sense. In fact, the famed mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota Enerique Peñalosa once compared the widening of urban roads to ‘buying new pairs of trousers when people get fat’ which does not solve the underlying problem. People need to reduce their waistlines if they get fat instead of buying new trousers. Huge traffic congestion is a new normal on the road around Tundikhel which was widened to four lanes for the SAARC Summit in 2002. Even the six-lane Tinkune-Suryabinayak segment is becoming congested. There are examples across the world such as major roads in Beijing and Los Angeles where vehicular movement often comes to hours of standstill due to the increasing movement of four-wheelers.
All these show that the widening of roads is not the solution. It has to be a change in the transportation system to ensure the right of movement and mobility of the people. Establishing an efficient mass transportation system will provide the right answer. We also need to construct walkable sidewalks and good pedestrian crossings. Doing so is important socially, economically and environmentally. The roads need to be designed incorporating the factors of safety and comfort for the children, senior citizens, pregnant women and differently abled who are considered as the most vulnerable members of the society. There have to be resting places, benches and shades at regular intervals along the roads. If they feel safe and comfortable, then everybody else can. Similarly, as the pavements are solely meant for walking, businesses except for a few such as newspaper stands should not be allowed.
The traditional form of housing structures in the core areas of Kathmandu has largely disappeared over the years. What is left is disappearing fast after the 2015 earthquake. In this respect, do you think the announcement made by the newly elected mayor to make Kathmandu a heritage city will be successful?
I would say this is possible if the KMC really wants to do it. Of course a large number of private houses and historical buildings such as temples and palaces are gone. But people of Kathmandu who live in the core city have no options other than to leave the old areas or redevelop the settlements in a traditional way. Over the years, ugly-looking large structures were built in many areas with no supporting infrastructures to sustain them. As a result, many residents left the core areas as they were unable to drive and park their vehicles and receive ample supply of water through the distribution system leaving some important quarters of the old city including Mahabouddha, Wotu, Bhotahity and many other areas to develop as wholesale markets of imported goods.
It is true that we will never be able to get all the traditional style houses. Nonetheless, the settlements can be reconstructed. It will be worthwhile if only 20-25 percent of the housing units are rebuilt incorporating the traditional design and architecture combined with the modern house construction techniques. Likewise, there should be services to support the traditional settlements. Likewise, intangible heritage like ‘jatras’ and festivals celebrated at the areas should get active support from the state. The government has the resources and there is only the need of willpower to make things happen. If a businessman like Ramesh Maharjan can work to rebuild 100 houses at Pilachhen of Patan to reflect the traditional building design and architecture, then the government can definitely start similar initiatives. In a way, the earthquake has given us an opportunity to rethink our past mistakes and embrace a sustainable way of urban living.
We need to revive the core areas and make them as lively as possible also for the betterment of the country’s tourism industry. Altogether, the traditional settlements, temples, palaces and festivals are among the factors that attract people from across the world to visit Nepal.
Unchecked internal migration is often blamed as an element contributing to the worsening urban environment in the capital and some other cities. How can the internal migration be systematised?
We need to recognise that the population growth and expansion of the urban areas is due to internal migration and also acknowledge it as an irreversible process which happens everywhere in the world. Now the authorities need to know who are coming into the cities and manage their needs accordingly. Migration from villages to cities takes place basically due to the reasons related to the availability of economic opportunities, basic services in health, education, governmental works and security. The centralisation of these services in urban areas has been among the major problems in our country in managing internal migration. Decentralisation of the basic services along with economic opportunities and security will be instrumental in this regard.
In recent years, the overcrowded situation in areas like the capital valley has forced many people to think about moving elsewhere to work and settle. Also from the demographic point of view, people might want to move to the areas where similar languages are spoken and similar customs are followed. Managing these things in the right way can be elemental in reducing the increasing population density pressure in the overcrowded urban centres of the country. Past urbanisation mistakes in the Kathmandu Valley can be a good lesson for new urban centres to learn from.
The rising number of landless squatters and urban poor has led to increasing slum settlements and encroachment of areas near rivers and public land in the Kathmandu Valley and other cities. How can this problem be tackled properly?
The poor people who migrate to cities do not have other options other than to settle in river banks and public land as they do not have access to good housing options. It is the duty of the government to provide them with housing units. Nevertheless, the housing solution needs to be reliable and convenient for the targeted groups. The current low-cost housing project which is under construction at Ichhangunarayan of Kathmandu, for instance, might not attract the urban poor who have been living on the riverbanks of the Bagmati. The designated group has been looking at the housing project just as another infrastructure project. The social engineering part is lacking in this regard. The concerned authorities should engage with the targeted people to know their specific needs and make them aware about the benefits of the project.
Meanwhile, planners also need to be mindful about factors including the convenience of transportation, health and education and other basic services while dealing with the re-settlement of the urban poor. They are among the much needed people in the cities as they work as cleaners, porters, masons and factory workers. They are engaged in several types of difficult jobs that the city dwellers hesitate to do. So they should be given some social incentives.
Re-settlement of the landless squatters and urban poor can also be done by providing them with low-cost housing units at certain areas where they have been living for generations. But no matter how they are re-accommodated, the social engineering part needs to be handled carefully.
What is UN-Habitat doing in this regard?
We are a UN agency working to support governments for sustainable urbanisation. We basically provide technical and other advice to the government and civil society and give exposure to new issues in urbanisation and habitat management. We also support the government in formulating new policies.