For elderly visitors to Swayambhunath, even crossing the road is a hazardElderly worshippers, who visit Swayambhu every day for the kora, fear that expansion will only make the Ring Road section more dangerous.
Swayambhunath begins to stir as early as 3 am, when the elderly faithful begin their slow walk from their homes to the stupa for morning prayers. By late morning, hundreds of Buddhist locals cross the Ring Road to get to Swayambhu for the daily kora, where pilgrims circumambulate the stupa.
But for the elderly, who constitute the bulk of the worshippers, crossing the Ring Road is fraught with danger, from speeding vehicles and due to a large area to cover for older, slower people. And now that 8.2km Kalanki-Balaju-Maharajgunj section of the Ring Road is being expanded, there are fears that things could get much worse.
“Every day, I cross the Ring Road to worship at Swayambhunath, but it scares me,” said 72-year-old Khamsung Gurung, who has been visiting Swayambhu every morning for the last 30 years. “Last year, I saw two people die after being knocked down by a public bus while crossing the road. I cannot imagine what will happen once the road is expanded.”
According to traffic police, the road section at Swayambhunath is already one of the busiest and most dangerous in Kathmandu Valley, especially due to a heavy pedestrian flow across the Ring Road. Three people have been killed in 110 accidents in the past three months, according to the Swayambhu Metropolitan Traffic Police Circle.
“At 3am, Buddhist monks and worshippers start to arrive and the flow steadily increases during morning and evening,” said Sub-inspector Shyam Sundar Kamat, who was posted to Swayambhu last year.
Traffic police estimate that nearly 7,000 people, including pilgrims, locals, visitors and tourists, visit the stupa every day. Around 80 percent of them tend to cross the road to get to the stupa.
Locals and activists have already raised significant concerns about the ongoing expansion of the Ring Road. Critics point to the faulty design of the newly expanded road, which lacks proper zebra crossings, traffic lights, street lamps, a proper median, designated U-turn spaces, separate lanes for cyclists and footpaths for pedestrians. The Kalanki-Koteshwor section of the road had become notorious after more than 600 accidents occurred in just 10 months. The Ring Road, which is currently of four lanes, is being expanded into eight lanes under a Chinese aid.
According to Amrit Mani Rijal, senior divisional engineer at the Department of Roads, the plan is to construct an overhead pedestrian bridge at Swayambhu for people to cross safely.
However, climbing the stairs is already a problem for the elderly, said Mamata Gurung, a Swayambhu local who speaks for the elderly residents.
“Every day, thousands of elderly people come here for the kora and many of them have poor eyesight and many are physically weak,” said Gurung. “If the road is expanded like the Kalanki-Koteshwor section, it will be a nightmare.”
According to Gurung, the authorities could consider the construction of a sloping underpass rather than an overpass. Gurung plans to submit a petition with a thousand signatures to the Department of Roads, and also mobilise the neighbourhood community to demand safety measures before actual expansion begins.
Kamat the sub-inspector agrees that the authorities need to take demographics and road usage into account before expanding a road willy-nilly.
“The government should be sensitive about this section while expanding the Ring Road,” he said.
For 70-year-old Karma Chenzom and 68-year-old Nima Palmo, both living in Sitapaila, coming to Swayambhu for kora is a daily tradition they’ve undertaken together for the past four decades.
“When we first came here, we were young. There were very few vehicles and we weren’t afraid of crossing the roads,” said Chenzom. “But now it’s hard for us as we have grown older and we don’t have much energy while speeding vehicles do not stop for us. Every day when we come here, our family members worry.”