Pollution and politicsGovernment’s inaction regarding tackling air pollution is playing politics with Kathmandu’s health
Talking about pollution in Kathmandu is like baying at the moon. To say so about this so-called Shangri-La city may be an anachronism. I felt emotionally large when I cited the words from The Imperial Archive (1993) written by Thomas Richards about Kathmandu when I was drafting my book Eki Kawaguchi: The Trespassing Insider at Tokyo University in 1997. I was perhaps at that time too feeling little romantic about Kathmandu. But that had already become a nostalgia by the time I reviewed Carl Pruscha’s book Kathmandu Valley 1: and II. The preservation of physical environment and cultural heritage a protective inventory, in this newspaper (12-06-2016). I want to mention a small narrative of intimate nature associated with that.
After the review was published, I received a mail from Ludmilla Hungerhuber, a theatre person associated with Sabina Lehman’s Theatre 7, in Kathmandu and friend of Carl Pruscha. She wrote to me on June 12, 2016, ‘’…I have sent it to him, he will be very happy. It was his 80th Birthday day before yesterday. Great timing!” Naturally,scen I was very delighted too by knowing that. I was able to send information to Carl through a Viennese Nepali, Rudra Chudal, and the Nepali ambassador Prakash Subedi, whom Pruscha had complained, Nepal no longer remembers him. But this memory part is very important.
This amnesia is not only applicable to the earlier authentic studies about Kathmandu but also about our own memories of the Valley. Our problem of forgetfulness has serious implications. I do not want to write about this subject here. But what must be said here is that Kathmandu is neither a seekers’ Shangri-La nor Carl Pruscha’s manageable inventory of the monuments, preservation sites and settlement patterns anymore. It is a mess. There are landmarks to this process of forgetting. The first is the fast growth of the city. Second is the Gorkha Earthquake of 2015. Third is a political transformation. The forgetfulness has serious implication and meaning. I had never realised so strongly that this amnesia has a political meaning.
An entangled mess
Kathmandu trope covers three districts, Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur that cover an area of 899 square kilometres. The above districts have cities by the above names, which are burgeoning day by day. But Kathmandu city that is the core of the metropolitan area, has become an entangled mess. And the most alarming part of this mess is the pollution that is increasing every day with bellicose character. The damage caused by the pollution is often repeated in media discussions and reports published in medical magazines.
But Kathmandu metropolitan chaos caused by successive government decisions of various categories is a political subject. It is political because the reconstruction, restoration and expansion questions are directly related to governments from the Panchayat era to the present. During the Panchayat era, it was said that certain sections of the Kathmandu city were the concentration of the people in power who had the resources in their hands.
The construction of houses without planning the size of the roads, water supply and preservation of heritage sites, and very importantly the management of public or open spaces, were the first aberrations in the city. The next phase came with the political change, the fall of the Panchayat system and the ascendancy of the political parties under a so-called titular head of the state, the king in that case.
The successive governments did not realise, when they were recklessly endorsing every shortsighted move of the metropolitan bodies and the planners that Kathmandu was not going to cope with such developments.
The first casualties of that period were the open spaces like the Tundikhel, that in London, would be called the commons or the greens. I remember walking with poet Siddhicharan Shrestha around Tundikhel under the autumnal pristine sky many years ago. He told me, a college student, by way of educating me, “This is the largest and the most beautiful parade ground in Asia.”
I did not feel the need to check the reality. But the poet’s words did have a great resonance with the city, its open space, the clear blue autumn sky and the sheer joy of being here.
Dishevelled and disorganised
In course of time, any open space was considered as the candidate for a certain construction, and this Tundikhel was the target. Constructing big monstrosities had another attraction with political nature; that was power, money, commission and so on. That got great boost and promotion. But that promotion made the green fields, roads, and construction of houses on fertile land vulnerable for construction. This trend increased at an alarming rate even after Nepal became a republic and loktantrik, country. The character of the third phase of Kathmandu, which covers other towns also, is one of recklessness and anarchic planning. Questions such as the air, water, congestion, and rubbish management were very delicate. But the governments embarked on reckless planning, and constructions. Since it was echoed in the 1994 election speech of the Nepali Congress candidate Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Melamchi continued to be haunted by the political spectres. The clean river Melamchi rising from Jugal Himal is to be diverted to Kathmandu, which is badly tired, thirsty, dishevelled and disorganised. To add to that, digging and uprooting processes became rampant. All the functioning streets were dug out; big holes were made and chasms were created in the most frequented places. But the underlying meaning of this entire travesty is political that involves money. Mysticism combined with politics has been corroding into the health of Kathmandu.
Going through an article “air pollution rots our brains” in The Guardian (27 September 2018) with a murky picture of Delhi with the title “Delhi smog declared public health emergency”, I feel a chill deep down for no reason other than that I am going to attend a literary conference there next week. Meaning, I am travelling from one native polluted metropolis to another polluted South Asian city. Delhi has been trying to develop its own way of fighting the pollution. But the Nepali measures, my hunch says, will be more complicated and serious because no practical plans for the amelioration are in sight.