Khula Manch was once a symbol of struggle against authoritarian rule. The days are long gone, it seemsKathmandu Metropolitan City has ordered free food distribution be removed from Khula Manch. This, many say, is against democratic principles, values the space once stood for.
Seventy-seven-year old Birendra Bhakta Shrestha vividly remembers the day he led a mass gathering from Kaiser Mahal to Khula Manch in the spring of 1990 during the People’s Movement demanding multi-party democracy. When he reached Khula Manch he saw that thousands had gathered there from other directions too.
“I went up on the stage with a message from Ganesh Man Singh who was in hospital then,” said Shrestha, a former member of the Nepali Congress. “In the address, I spoke of how we must stand for democratic values and end the Panchayat rule. I still remember how the crowd roared with me.”
The open public space of Khula Manch once was a symbol of democratic voice against autocratic rule. It was here that Bishweshwor Prasad Koirala too had addressed the people time and again repeating, in essence, a nation is its people.
Even after the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, politicians would speak directly to the people from Khula Manch.
But today this democratic space is slowly getting stripped of its legacy as the government and businesses have encroached upon the space and it no longer is as accessible to people as it used to be.
However, since the months-long lockdown was imposed in March, the space became a place of hope. Those who were made the most vulnerable by the pandemic found a place that offered two warm meals a day.
But recently, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City declared that the food distribution programme in the area was ‘unhygienic and unmanaged’ and asked the independent Facebook group, 100 Group, to stop providing free meals there.
“The government’s lack of understanding of these spaces is clear,” said Shrestha, who has now become a heritage activist. “And now their [Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s] controlling of the area because they think the sight of people coming for a hot meal doesn’t look beautiful shows how negligent their concerns are.”
Kathmandu Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya had said, ‘Kathmandu shouldn’t be promoted as the city of beggars’.
That the City’s decision is undemocratic is a view widely shared.
“It’s an undemocratic step by the local government; instead of encouraging the Samaritans who have been supporting people in a dire situation because of the pandemic, they are dampening their efforts,” said Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a heritage activist.
Political analysts view this step of the metropolis in the larger context of deteriorating democratic culture in the country.
According to Puranjan Acharya, a political analyst, the negligence on Khula Manch and its democratic values is an effect of the declining political values and poor governance of the state.
“I think Khula Manch’s essence has waned with the deteriorating politics—political leaders no longer are interested in addressing and interacting with the people. Today our political leaders are more driven to wield power than lead for the people,” said Acharya. “And so Khula Manch that gave voice to the people has been completely overlooked and it no longer stands for democratic values.”
In June 2020, UN-Habitat released the Guidance on COVID-19 and Public Space, in which it framed that public spaces are an asset “to provide people with the swift and rapid establishment of temporary and secondary facilities such as for health care and for food distribution in times of crisis.”
But open spaces have increasingly shrunk in sizes in Kathmandu with haphazard encroachment.
“In times of crisis, the government should have sought to use these spaces for humanitarian works and they should have prioritised the maintenance of the place for a pandemic like this one,” said Biresh Shah, an architect who has studied Kathmandu's open spaces. “The government has not invested in the proper planning and design of Tundikhel or Khula Manch. Had these things been in place, they wouldn’t have had to ask people to remove food distribution from the area which is a public space in itself.”
The devastating earthquake of 2015 had also pressed on the significance of these spaces but not much has changed in terms of how these places are designed and allocated, said Shah.
Currently, Khula Manch has become an area for parking buses and stashing construction materials with the Old Bus Park being leased out for commercial purposes.
According to Ishwor Man Dangol, spokesperson for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, they had asked to shift the food distribution indoors because they were worried about hygiene and proper water and sanitation management.
“We weren’t saying that they shouldn’t distribute food to the people, we were only saying that the area is not appropriate because the place is not clean, and since vehicles have started to move around in the area, the place could be congested,” said Dangol.
Since its announcement of prohibiting food distribution from Khula Manch, the City has proposed that the 100 Group use party venues for food delivery and has assured them of support in paying the rent of the banquets.
However, recent studies and research articles have also highlighted that coronavirus spreads faster in a confined space, making pertinent the necessity of public spaces.
“Plus, Tundhikel is at the centre of Kathmandu. It does not look nice for people to be eating there,” Dangol told the Post during a phone conversation.
But many also view the government’s recent decision to remove food distribution from Khula Manch—from a centre to an enclosed space—a step the local government undertook to conceal their own inefficiencies.
“In many ways, the humanitarian work in the Khula Manch at the city’s centre is questioning the government’s accountability and their role in mitigating the crisis caused by the pandemic,” said Sanjay Adhikari, a public interest litigator.
“These are creative spaces where the people can account the government for good governance. These spaces don’t see hierarchy, they are open to all.”
The reason behind the City’s move has other doubters.
“It probably is a deliberate step by step manipulation to keep us away from accessing a democratic space,” said Tuladhar, the heritage activist. “Of course there needs to be a mechanism on how we can use the space as laws can’t be violated, but at all times, open spaces like these should have unrestricted access for people.”
Acharya, the political analyst, sees the City’s decision in a wider context of erosion of governance.
“There’s no leader right now who can face the people because they have failed in leadership and the people,” said Acharya. “This initiative happening at the centre of Kathmandu—where no one can overlook the humanitarian work that people themselves have come together for —without the government’s support could be threatening them.”
He, however, feels that Khula Manch could once again uphold its legacy of a symbol against authoritarian rule that the general public led by politically conscious people like Shrestha spearheaded.
“I can feel an uprising waiting to happen at Khula Manch again, where the people once again might come together to question governance of the country,” said Acharya.