Living in an unjust cityDemocracy is measured by the state of the sidewalk, not the number of wide roads
There used to be a small number of people making a living by carving beautiful traditional stone grinders (silauto) in an open space along the dusty Ring Road at Gongabu. But when I went there a couple of months ago to buy a grinder, the open space was occupied by parked motor vehicles, and those people were nowhere to be seen. Luckily, I found one at a corner, but he was frequently casting a wary eye all around. When I talked to him, he said that the city police had forced them to leave the space and also seized some of their tools. Free parking is provided for private vehicles, but making a living on the roadside has been criminalised by the city government. Who has a right to this city?
This is just a typical example of how unjust the state is particularly towards low-income marginalised communities with regard to access to public space. Apparently, the city police department was formed merely to harass street vendors. Never has the government realised that removing street vendors won’t make the city better, and that they have to design the streets and sidewalks in a way that can accommodate them. Never has it realised that street vendors not only provide basic services to city dwellers but also make the city vibrant and safe. Never has it realised that it should be more concerned about space for people than space for cars. Or maybe for the bourgeois state and city dwellers, aesthetics is more important than a humane city.
Our notion of ‘bikas’ and a prosperous city is all about wide roads, big infrastructure and expensive metros. Narrow gullies where cars can’t roll are seen as something to be ashamed of and often narrated as our narrow vision of ‘bikas’. The city’s heritage is seen as constraints. People’s homes are being bulldozed to make room for the fraction of the population with private automobiles. Low-income communities, which are called slums, were displaced forcefully to build a concrete structure. ‘Bikas’ is when the rich can roll swiftly in a car but not when our kids are able to walk or cycle to school with ease and safety.
Our transport system is designed by able-bodied adult bourgeois males to fulfill the desires of able-bodied adult bourgeois males. The basic mobility needs of women, children, the elderly, the disabled and low-income people are not in the equation of their transport planning. The populist government and planners love to talk about building multi-lane highways and flyovers, but fail to provide simple safe infrastructure for walking and cycling. The agenda of the overhyped expensive metro and mono-rail is the utmost priority for the city government, but not reimagining the low-cost bus transport system which is not popular and sleek enough for their ‘sambridhi’ rhetoric.
This city is more concerned about the comfort of motorists than the right of the people to walk with ease and safety, and to breathe clean air. The six-lane roads built through dense settlements at Koteshwor and Suryabinayak don’t even have sidewalks, let alone a cycle track. The eight-lane Ring Road is dangerous for walking and cycling; it is not even safe for motorists. The traffic lights that have recently been installed at a few locations in Kathmandu are primarily designed to smoothen the flow of traffic, but pedestrian safety issues remain the same. There is no space and time in this city where pedestrians can safely and comfortably cross the street.
Many of the widened roads are being used as parking for cars and motorbikes. The city government and traffic police have largely turned a blind eye to people parking their vehicles on the sidewalk, impeding the mobility of pedestrians. Apparently, the money spent on making good public spaces doesn’t yield any revenue for the city government, so it is hell-bent on turning public spaces into lucrative commercial buildings and parking spaces. The old bus park has been shifted to Khulla Manch, the only historic public space for political protests, and the space has been handed over to private companies to make profits. Maitighar Mandala has been declared a prohibited zone by the self-proclaimed socialist progressive government. The space and the rights of the people are less important than profit making and ‘sambridhi’.
Unless we address these injustices, small as they might seem, the common public will feel excluded from their government, and the dream of an equitable and inclusive city will remain far-fetched. In the city, the quality of democracy is measured by the state of the sidewalk, not the number of wide roads or highways. The way we treat the most marginalised communities must define the values of our government and society. The state and access to public space signify how inclusive our cities are.
Khanal is an avid cycle user and works on issues of urban transportation, air quality management and sustainable cities