Crowded Kathmandu’s few remaining open spaces are being steadily encroached uponOn Wednesday morning, Kathmandu woke up to a rude reminder of just how vulnerable the city remains to earthquakes. Two back-to-back earthquakes of magnitudes 5.2 and 4.3 shook Kathmandu within a span of 11 minutes, a day before the fourth anniversary of the April 2015 earthquakes, serving as a reminder—and a warning—of lessons unlearned.
On Wednesday morning, Kathmandu woke up to a rude reminder of just how vulnerable the city remains to earthquakes. Two back-to-back earthquakes of magnitudes 5.2 and 4.3 shook Kathmandu within a span of 11 minutes, a day before the fourth anniversary of the April 2015 earthquakes, serving as a reminder—and a warning—of lessons unlearned.
Then, many had attributed the widespread devastation wrought by the April 2015 earthquakes to a lack of open spaces to seek refuge in. In the four years since, open spaces across the Valley have shrunk, instead of expanding—prime among them being the Khula Manch.
On Wednesday, Naresh Bir Shakya was on the first floor of his five-storey home in Jamal, finalising the new issue of Laykoo, a fortnightly Newari magazine, which he edits.
“When the first quake shook the house, I was alarmed and the only open space I could think of was Khula Manch,” the 50-year-old told the Post. “Had the quakes been longer, or more severe, people from all around would have come out of their houses. But where would have they gone, as Khula Manch has no space?”
Situated in the heart of Kathmandu, the historic Khula Manch, or ‘open theatre’, was once 48 ropanis (24,406 square metres) of public land, one of the city’s largest open spaces. Now, half of Khula Manch has been turned into a bus park while the remaining half is being used to store construction materials for the nearby Durbar High School and Bir Hospital. Even before it become an ad-hoc storage area, the Metropolitan Traffic Division was using it as a parking lot to control traffic jams in New Road, Mahaboudha, Ason, Bhotahiti and Ratnapark areas.
In 2016, Jaleshwor Swachhanda Bkoi Builders reached an agreement with the Kathmandu Metropolitan City to build a view tower in the old bus park, and accordingly, the bus park was moved to Khula Manch. According to the agreement, the view tower should have been completed in three years. However, no substantial progress has been seen and the bus park continues to grow inside Khula Manch.
On Thursday, a group of locals, conservationists, activists and politicians, gathered at Khula Manch to ask, “Where is Khula Manch?” The protesters, around 300 in number, shouted slogans against the authorities for allowing Khula Manch, one of the city’s most vital public areas, to be parcelled and sold off.
In the aftermath of the 2015 quakes, Khula Manch offered safe haven for thousands of people. But given all that is currently happening at the place, there is not enough room for even half-a-dozen families to take shelter.
Though the bus park was supposed to be housed at Khula Manch only for three years, the city has extended the deadline for Jaleshwor Swachhanda Builders by one more year to construct the view tower, which means the bus park will remain in Khula Manch for at least another year.
Furthermore, a number of illegal one-room structures have now cropped up in the area, built by Manoj Kumar Bhetwal, the owner of Jaleshwor Swachhanda Builders. The builders were allowed to construct two toilets, one temporary structure for traffic police, two ticket counters, one pharmacy and one canteen. But around 50 temporary structures have been built.
“The ward office has not given permission for the construction of these structures. Those structures were constructed overnight,” said Bhai Ram Khadgi, chairperson of Ward No 28, where the Khula Manch lies. “Thirty percent of these illegal structures are already being rented out.”
Khadgi, who also attended Thursday’s protest, said he had written to the Kathmandu Metropolitan City administrative office and the mayor seeking clarification.
In separate interviews with the Post, those who’ve leased these one-room structures said they’re paying between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 a month for each structure, and that they had already paid up to Rs 1.2 million as commission to “agents” who helped them secure the rooms. The builder collects monthly payments from the tenants and a cut from the agents, said a number of tenants.
“Everything is illegal here,” said Khadgi, the ward chairman. “If the metropolis takes action, it’s fine, or else I myself will bring locals and conservationists and flatten these illegal structures.”
When the Post contacted Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya, he gave a short answer: “We will look at it and take necessary action.”
Khula Manch, to the south of Ratnapark and east of Bir Hospital, holds great political significance. A podium on its southern part has often served as a platform for political parties to champion various causes, including against the Panchayat system and against the monarchy. Khula Manch is witness to all the major political changes in the country.
“This used to be a place for political speeches, cultural events and concerts. It played a crucial role in ushering in democracy in 1990,” said Naresh Bir.
On Thursday, activists and locals reached the Kathmandu municipal office and submitted a memorandum to Deputy Mayor Hari Prabha Khadgi. Later in the day, the deputy mayor visited the area and vowed to remove all illegal structures within a week’s time.
After the 2015 quakes, the Ministry of Home Affairs had identified 83 open spaces inside the Valley that could be used in the aftermath of a disaster for rescue, relief and other humanitarian purposes. The Kathmandu Valley Development Authority had identified another 887 open spaces in the Valley. Among them, 488 are in Kathmandu, 346 in Lalitpur and 53 in Bhaktapur.
But if the current state of Khula Manch is anything to go by, there are fears that these open spaces might soon disappear.
“Khula Manch used to be our playground when we were kids, now it has turned into the playground for the land mafia,” said Naresh Bir.