Bhattarai’s ideological shiftWe do not necessarily need wider roads; what we need is affordable and efficient mobility for all
Many Nepalis, including me, had placed high hopes on Baburam Bhattarai when he became prime minister. Despite being the architect of the decade-long conflict, people believed his political agenda of pro-poor and inclusive development. Sadly, his actions were very different from what he preached and his ideologies were no more than mere political rhetoric.
Once Bhattarai entered mainstream politics, he realised his political ambition would reach nowhere if he did not please the growing middle class and the urban elites. To relieve the frustration of the Capital’s bourgeoisie about traffic chaos, the populist idea of road expansion in the city became his key mission during his tenure.
Many people—frustrated with the Capital’s traffic—applauded his rampant road expansion drive as a daring move, which is still seen by many as one of his most successful legacies. However, many people, including planners and engineers, failed to realise that his populist steps to please the bourgeoisie would not solve the city’s congestion or other transport problems. It only serves a small segment of the population that can afford cars. Bhattarai changed his ideology of equality and pro-poor inclusive development that he had raised during the armed conflict. People still think of wide roads, flyovers and cars as symbols of prosperity and development. So does Bhattarai.
His recent post on social media mentioned that traffic congestion has remained the same despite wider roads, recommending Prime Minister Oli to focus on improving public transportation. However, during his own tenure he failed to think of investing in improving public transportation. Roads were expanded at the expense of sidewalks.
Hundreds of houses were demolished during the campaign and many families were apparently thrown to the streets.
The slums were also destroyed. Although alternative settlements were promised, no action was taken. He failed the same people whom he claimed he was fighting for. It was very shameful when he termed this as ‘creative destruction’. Although it seemed that traffic congestion had improved for a while, it had far more destructive repercussions. Traffic congestion is becoming worse and roads have become more unsafe for pedestrians. The state of public transportation remains the same and the widened roads have encouraged more people to buy private vehicles.
The fallacy of Bhattarai’s vision and approach can also be seen when he gave directives to the traffic police, which has neither the jurisdiction nor the capacity, to widen roads. The responsibilities were later given to the concerned institutions after his approach was highly criticised. If he really was a modern visionary and planner, he would have adpoted a more integrated planning approach, prioritising good public transport, walking and cycling infrastructures. Despite his rhetoric of pro-poor and inclusive development, the issues of the urban poor and vulnerable were largely ignored.
Naya Shakti Nepal
It is no secret that Bhattarai formed the new party largely because he could not reach the top position in his former party. His rhetoric on the formation of the new party as the need of the hour for Nepal’s economic revolution is simply a ploy to deceive the public. He used to talk about the leadership of the younger generation in politics, but one can look at the inclusion of youths in his new party.
One of his main ideas to attract public support is economic revolution through double-digit growth. Experiences from China show that double-digit growth comes with serious environmental degradation, rapid depletion of natural resources and economic inequality. His belief dictates that we first need capitalism for economic revolution at the expense of equality; only later does distribution of wealth come. He has not realised that capitalism at the expense of economic equality might lead to other conflicts similar to the one he started.
Even China has now realised that double-digit growth is unsustainable and comes with huge social and environmental costs. The premier of China has said they will aim for a reasonable rate of economic growth. During a session in World Economic Forum 2015, the founder of Alibaba said, “If China still keeps nine percent growth of the economy there must be something wrong. You will never see the blue sky. You will never see quality. China should pay attention to the quality of the economy.” Nepal should learn from it.
Before we are attracted to Bhattarai’s rhetoric of economic revolution, we need to assess his past actions, vision and approach. We do not necessarily need wider roads and cars; what we need is affordable and efficient mobility for all. We do not need double-digit economic growth; we need inclusive and reasonable growth that keeps us moving forward sustainably. We do not need to be the richest nation on earth; a prosperous nation where every citizen has a decent living environment and good social security is enough.
Bhattarai’s roads may be wide but they are not inclusive and sustainable. His current vision and approach are obsolete and conventional. I hope he realises that and takes the right track to inclusive and sustainable development.
Khanal is an avid cycle user and works on urban transportation issues