The fight for public spaceFrom Morocco's Jemaa el-Fna to Nepal's Tundikhel, people are raising their voices.
Public spaces are becoming scarce everywhere in the world, especially in megacities and economic hubs. Kathmandu is not so different. Tundikhel is a prime example of the public being expelled from a public space. Now people are raising their voices to reclaim it. We can look at the success stories of similar cases in other countries, this time not from the developed world, but from a country similar to ours—Morocco. The country has its own social, economic and political problems of cheap labour, unemployment and poverty.
Morocco's Jemaa el-Fna is one of the few public squares in the world that have been in continuous use since ancient times. It is in the medina quarter of Marrakech, a historic city of Morocco. Founded in the 11th century, the city was an economic, cultural and political centre. The ancient city of Marrakech still shows remnants of its glorious past—mosques, palaces, minarets, squares and gardens. Like Kathmandu, Marrakech is not only known for monuments, gates, palaces and gardens, but also for its traditional houses with interior gardens (riad), narrow alleys and traditional suks (markets). It has a vibrant culture. Amidst the amazing architecture in Jemaa el-Fna, we can see a mixture of ancient and new Moroccan culture.
Save the square
All day long, storytellers, snake charmers, traditional dentists, acrobats, performers, shops and food stalls can be seen here. In the evening, families go out for food in this square. This place has become a hangout for locals and tourists alike. In the 1990s, Marrakech authorities with local businessmen and contractors planned to demolish several houses around Jemaa el-Fna to build a shopping mall. They wanted a multi-storey glass-fronted shopping mall and underground parking, which would be a symbol of development and progress. If this plan had been executed, the cultural space of Jemaa el-Fna would not have survived. The small shops, storytellers, snake charmers and much more would have been swept away by the wind of modernity.
Morocco’s intellectuals like Juan Goytisolo and his friends foresaw the looming disaster. In order to save the square, they formed a non-governmental organisation named Les Amis de la Place (Friends of the Square). They held several awareness programmes for local residents on the importance of traditional places that bear the testimony of the Moroccan lifestyle. The group organised various programmes and activities to keep the square in the spotlight such as storytelling competitions, international events with scholars, writers and politicians. People outside Morocco praising this square was important in changing the perception of Moroccans towards their own cultural space. The group was also able to convince influential businessmen about the importance of the square and its relationship with locals. The support that UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage Division gave to Juan Goytisolo and his friends played an influential role in saving the square.
In 2008, after several years of work, Jemaa el-Fna was listed in the representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. With this listing, the square continued; its death was averted. The recognition by UNESCO as a heritage of humanity gave Jemaa el-Fna more visibility; and even among Moroccans, pride to safeguard this square. Now, this square is one of the most visited places in Marrakech by tourists.
Similar to Jemaa el-Fna, we have our own struggle going on to save Kathmandu's open space—Tundikhel. The repeated encroachment of the public place and exclusion of people from their space made them join hands. The campaign Occupy Tundikhel/ Mukta Tundikhel was initiated to get back what belonged to the people. It held its first programme at Tundikhel on November 9, 2019. A large throng from different walks of life poured in to support the open space and the huge media coverage brought public attention. Not only locals, activists and intellectuals, but also many politicians came to support this campaign. They formed a human chain around Tundikhel as a symbolic gesture to reclaim the space.
Since then, different events took place at Tundikhel every Saturday until the Covid-19 pandemic started. Disseminating information, gathering people and organising programmes were mostly done through social media. Before November, the people engaged in this group successfully demolished illegal construction at Khula Manch and cleared out encroachment from the temple of Dui Maju at Khula Manch.
Tundikhel once extended from Rani Pokhari to Dashrath Rangasala. From the 1960s, this open space saw encroachment by the government itself. Saraswati Sadan on the eastern side of Rani Pokhari, Ratna Park, Khula Manch, Sainik Manch, Shahid Gate and Dashrath Rangasala are a few of the landmarks that were built by encroaching upon Tundikhel. The rest of Tundikhel is occupied by the Nepal Army which has built several buildings. Even the small spaces remaining for the general public are at risk of disappearing.
Property of the people
Open spaces in Kathmandu should not be treated as a luxury; they are vital for existence. People supported this movement, as everyone is aware of the need for open grounds. Even though the programmes at Tundikhel are on hold due to Covid-19, social media pages are still active. Through social media, Occupy Tundikhel is actively advocating and creating awareness of this place with old pictures, stories and some online events. Sanjay Adhikari, legal officer at Pro Public and one of the activists in the campaign, explains that there is little awareness among people about public and government lands. The space accessible to the public is public property and belongs to the people.
The story of Tundikhel could be a case of resistance by the people of Kathmandu against the destruction of open spaces, and the resistance of the people of Kathmandu for the right to open spaces and the right to use them for everyday social and cultural purposes. We are now taking the path of 'development' with high-rise buildings, underground parking and wide roads. But we are forgetting the people and spaces for them. Our course of development is still exactly on the same track that many developed countries are turning their back on. If we don't resist now, we will be living in a huge concrete maze. Open spaces are important for our survival in Kathmandu, for a liveable city. One day, we should be telling our own success story of Tundikhel like the Moroccans who proudly narrate the story of resistance of Jemaa el-Fna.