Walls are closing inWith an environmental impact assessment for the proposed 12-storey Kathmandu View Tower still in waiting, locals are questioning if the development project should have even come this far
The promo video for the proposed Kathmandu View Tower on YouTube appears to hit all the right notes. Uploaded by a nondescript user— Kathmandu View Tower Kathmandu—in March this year, the video through computer-generated graphics flaunts the building’s many highlights: a splendid view of Kathmandu, multi-storey parking facility, and a futuristic bus terminal. The building will also house a food court, a theatre, seminar halls, apartments and lounge pools. Calling it the “most impressive and upcoming construction in Nepal,” the video ends with the shot zooming out to a bird’s eye view that underscores the building’s mammoth size and its Space Needle-inspired dome. All this, set to the thumping music of the Russian-born musician Pavlov Dovgol’s EDM track, Faust.
The choice of the background score was no doubt merely incidental. But is it ironic that Sailesh Shakya, a 51-year-old community organiser, is labelling the project as Faustian? At a disgruntled public hearing on the project in early September, Shakya, backed by cheers of dozens of locals, asked a pointed question: “This is a project being built on public land with taxpayers’ money. So why are the decisions being made by non-elected government officials, without consulting the public?” According to him, the public hearing—held 11 months after the foundation stone of the project was laid by the Vice President in November, 2015—was nothing short of a ruse that served no real purpose.
A stuttering project
The Kathmandu View Tower project is being spearheaded by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC), a once local government body that hasn’t had a publicly-elected official for over a decade. The project, with an estimated budget of Rs 7 billion, is being undertaken under a Public-Private Partnership, with the building company, Jaleshwor Swachhanda Bkoi Builders Pvt Ltd, contractually obliged to complete the construction by August 14, 2019. Once finished, the contracting company will operate the building for 30 years, before handing it over to the KMC.
Yet, for all its grand designs, progress on the project remains muted. The building, originally proposed to be 29 storeys high—Kathmandu’s tallest structure—has now been downgraded to 12 storeys, following last year’s earthquakes. In May this year, the bustling Purano Bus Park, which served as a transit for over 900 public vehicles every day, was moved to the nearby Khula Manch, after half of the historic open-air venue was black-topped to accommodate its new-found role. Since then, piling machines—brought in from India—have stood idle at the construction site with the contractor citing various delays. In June, Manoj Bhetwal, of the Jaleshwor Swachhanda Bkoi Builders, cited the lack of building materials as the reason behind the stalled construction. In a recent conversation with the Post, however, Bhetwal said, “We have sent a soil sample to Singapore for lab tests. There’s kalo mato soil (black topsoil) in the Old bus park area. So, we have to test the soil and only then start the piling process. It will take 55 days for the piling.” According to reports published in June, the company was supposed to complete an underground bus depot at the site within six months to house the buses stationed at the Khula Manch—a deadline that has now all but elapsed.
Thakur Kumar Shrestha, a local resident, is relieved that the construction remains ensnared. According to him, the entire project has been ill-informed to begin with. Shrestha, who along with hundreds of residents of Bagbazaar and thereabouts, took shelter at the sprawling Old Bus Park grounds following last year’s earthquakes, says that it would be short-sighted to convert the city’s already limited open spaces into towering monoliths that loom over the surrounding neighbourhoods.
It is a sentiment echoed by Shakya as well. The Gorkha Earthquakes, that displaced thousands in Kathmandu’s core districts, also laid bare the Capital’s acute shortage of open spaces during emergencies. For thousands of locals from the historic inner city, open spaces like the Bhugol Park, Tundikhel, Ratna Park, Purano Bus Park and even the precarious Basantapur Dabali proved critical, before the aftershocks receded in earnest. When the next ‘big one’ rattles Kathmandu’s shaky foundations, those residents will now have one less space to huddle in.
“We need open spaces and are demanding it,” says Shakya, “This land was nationalised in order to build a bus park in service of the public, not a commercial complex to line the pockets of contractors and officials. Where will we stay when another disaster strikes, if public land continues to be encroached upon? If the earthquakes taught us one thing, it is that Kathmandu needs parks, not towers.”
An intricate eco-system
In addition to locals concerned about the project’s misplaced priorities, there are others who are worried about how digging the 50 metre foundations required for the tower, in an already densely-packed area, will weaken existing structures and disrupt the subterranean aquifers that provide water to the surrounding neighbourhoods. Anie Joshi, an architect who specialises in heritage conservation, reiterates that ponds, like the nearby 16th century Rani Pokhari, were built in the outskirts of the core residential areas to recharge the aquifers that in turn ensured that wells and water sprouts continued to function, particularly during the dry seasons. “Even if the deep foundation of the proposed tower does not disrupt the recharge source for Rani Pokhari, there will be a serious impact on the ground water level of the entire area.” She believes that deep excavations for high-rise buildings in the Valley must respect the underground aquifers and channels that make up the intricately networked traditional or natural water supply system that directly sustain thousands of local residents.
The construction of the tower may affect Rani Pokhari’s water levels, according to Chief Archaeological Officer of the Department of Archaeology (DOA), Shyam Sundar Rajbanshi. As an example, he cites the example of the iconic Sundhara, a traditional water sprout that dried up completely after the construction of the Kathmandu Mall nearby. Officials at the DoA maintain they can only intervene in the construction process if evidences of historic channels or ducts are uncovered during the construction. “We can only hope that they will not dig too deep. Otherwise, it will affect the whole environment,” says Rajbanshi. “If the DoA interferes with the ongoing construction, it will be accused of being against development works. The concerned authorities will fill the water from tankers, as they already partially do, if the pond dries up in the future,” he adds with resignation.
Kashish Das Shrestha, an independent sustainable policy development analyst, argues that the now-black topped Khula Manch and the 12-storey tower will be a major blow to the areas groundwater levels and will instead further aggravate runoff flooding during the monsoon. “I would be curious to know what plans Kathmandu View Tower has for rainwater harvesting, solar power generation, and waste management. Commercial projects of this nature should no longer be excused for, or allowed to, affect public health for their private benefit,” Shrestha says.
If completed, the “Space Needle” dome atop the tower will house a revolving restaurant overlooking the clustered cityscape. It remains a distinct possibility that along with the advertised “splendid view of Kathmandu,” the food court will cast a long shadow over a dry Rani Pokhari and a water starved Bagbazaar and beyond.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, a list of 83 open spaces in different parts of Kathmandu was identified for people to go to in the event of another disaster. But with most of those being converted into concrete, it only means Kathmanduites are now staring at the possibility of fewer spaces to run to, while residents of certain areas will also be left deprived of the ground water. Are the Faustian plans worth what is at stake? It’s a question we all need to wake up to.