Misplaced notionsGovernment seems to spare no effort in indulging in extravaganza in all its activities to foolishly charm and attract the simple and innocent
In the middle of last month, just before he undertook the much-hyped India visit, Prime Minister Oli finally deemed it fit to initiate the Dharahara reconstruction project. The ceremony was held amid tight security at the foot of what remained of the Bhimsen Stambha (Dharahara). There were security personnel atop many of the nearby houses and buildings to ensure that nothing untoward happened when the prime minister called on everyone to donate funds for the reconstruction of the tower.
The day being a public holiday, it was the time when a large number of visitors throng the Dharahara, and the exact death toll of the victims at the site will perhaps never be known. And it is in this kind of grim and tragic area that the prime minister initiated the reconstruction, full ten months after the event. The lavish spending for the preparations for the reconstruction ceremony in a country devastated by the earthquake is something that must make all sensible Nepalis think anew about our own economic plight and whether it is right for the government not to resort to an austerity drive in all sectors of national life.
There can be a debate on whether Dharahara should be rebuilt or the destroyed portion left as it is and suitable surroundings developed to ensure that our future takes due heed of what can happen when the government and the people are driven by money and not by reason and aesthetic values. Surely, the spending that the government incurred in organising such ceremonies could easily have been donated to the reconstruction itself. In any case, the government revenue, due to different reasons including the earthquake and the blockade, is at an all time low and it is only fitting that the government take recourse to austerity measures in order to bring back some semblance of normalcy in the country.
Yet, despite the crisis being faced by the country, the government seems to spare no effort in indulging in extravaganza in all its activities to foolishly charm and attract the simple and innocent. Whatever be the case of political parties or individual citizens, the fact is that the government must have showed everyone the path of austerity following the earthquake. The resources thus saved could have gone a long way in soothing to some extent the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of people. But this was not to be; the government was too busy finalising the constitution and similar ‘important’ issues to take up rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction on a war footing. It is always too little too late. This was so with the Koirala government and it is so with the Oli government.
The area where the tower, which the prime minister called ‘a symbol of our unity and strength’, stood has been destroyed beyond recognition by successive governments from the Panchayat days onwards. All the different governments for decades seem to believe that the government has full right over public places and open spaces. And this is true not only in the area around Dharahara and Sundhara but elsewhere in the city and the country too.
The government of the day distributed part of the Tundhikhel to the then Royal Nepal Airlines and to the Employees Provident Fund. It constricted Foreign and General post offices. The government owned Nepal Telecom has two structures. The army, on the other hand, made a part of the Tundhikhel on the southern side its own, and the open space where the young and the old used to play in the past is no longer available due to the growing number of city dwellers. The story is the same in Chauni ground just below Swayambhunath, in Patan Tundhikhel and in Bhaktapur. The general public is denied access to open spaces. As a result, the youths in particular are more likely to look for less-healthy activities.
The fallen Dharahara was said to be a national heritage (unlike the temples in the Durbar Square area which are a part of the World Heritage sites). Yet the Kathmandu municipality deemed it fit to surround the area with shops selling various modern items, quite incongruent with what the area is supposed to reflect. The shops that were constructed, despite local opposition, sell modern wears and there is not a single shop in the area that sells Nepali handicrafts. To crown it all, the real estate mafia and municipality nexus has taken over the public road adjoining Sundhara in the east and line it with shops selling branded and not-so-branded dresses. As if this was not enough, the path around Sundhara has been blocked, and illegally so.
Demands of history
Sundhara, another of our heritage, is now dry. Most of us who grew up in the city used to take our daily bath at Sundhara after playing football and other games in Tundhikhel. And many people from nearby places used to go there to fill their jars whenever taps at home went dry (which was quite often).
The opposition to the construction of the Kathmandu Mall (originally told to the local people that it would be an office building) by Employees Provident Fund was mainly because there was fear all around that the construction would block the flow of water at Sundhara, which is what happened. The fear was prompted by the fact
that when the Nepal Airlines building was constructed in the late 1960s, the flow of water was significantly reduced. It is said that the Provident Fund provided almost two million rupees to the concerned ward to remedy the situation but no one knows what happened.
The prime minister’s observations at the Dharahara reconstruction ceremony will only be valid if the government and local municipality act in a manner that does not cater to the whims of those after easy money but to the interest of the people and the demands of history. It is time to replace misplaced notions with enlightened ones about heritage and history.