Mayor Shah’s demolition drive draws cheers, but concerns tooSmall shop and business holders in Kathmandu Metropolitan City say they were not notified about the action in advance and they have nowhere to go now.
In the 2001 Bollywood flick Nayak, an aspiring journalist when challenged by a politician takes up the job of the chief minister for one day. He decides to address the issues that affect the common populace. He suspends corrupt and inefficient officials then and there. He works towards ensuring houses and employment for the needy.
Lately, many people in Nepal are recalling the Hindi movie, drawing parallels between its protagonist and Kathmandu Metropolitan City Mayor Balendra Shah, who is attempting to fix one of the serious problems of the city—illegally built structures and non-compliance to approved designs by business complex owners.
At the direction of Mayor Shah, who won as an independent candidate defeating party candidates, city authorities have been continuing their demolition drive for the last few days.
In videos and photos, Shah is seen arguing with building owners and some others whose livelihoods are at stake, showing maps to prove the structures are illegally built, leading the bulldozers for dismantling structures.
In the meantime, he has also turned his focus on recovering municipal taxes from businesses and removing unauthorised digital hoarding boards.
His actions have drawn cheers from many, but some tuts as well.
A week ago, Min Bahadur Bishwakarma, a Congress lawmaker, accused Shah of not following the law himself.
“The City should send a letter to those who have breached the law and take appropriate steps such as slapping a fine for violating the rules and regulations,” Bishwakarma said. “He should not promote anarchy in the Valley.”
Meanwhile, CPN-UML lawmaker Mahesh Basnet, too, accused Shah of trying to portray himself as a “hero” with “his publicity stunt”. He further lashed out at Shah asking him to not get swayed by the support he is receiving on social media for his work. “You might face difficulties later if your opponents also start applying your methods to get their work done,” Basnet wrote on Facebook.
Since both Bishwakarma and Basnet are politicians representing the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML, respectively—whose candidates Shah defeated in the mayoral race—they were immediately pooh-poohed by the people, especially on social media, saying they were trying to discredit Shah.
In a bid to counter some criticism he faced, Shah issued a statement on Facebook last Sunday.
Shah said that the city authorities used excavators to clear illegal structures exercising its executive power granted by the Local Government Operation Act 2074 (2017), Section 11 (2).
“Those who have taken the permit for basement parking to construct a building have taken various subsidies and benefits from the city. But in most cases, people and organisations have breached the law,” reads the statement.
During one of the demolition drives, Shah said that the city authorities were following due process—that everyone was informed about the plan to take action. He is not entirely wrong.
The City had on July 18 issued a 35-day public notice. And after the completion of the deadline, the City swung into action. Shah claims that the City cannot send the notice to hundreds of thousands individually.
It’s not only the private properties that have been Shah’s target; last Friday, he ordered the clearing of the basement of the Department of Passport, a government building. The city’s argument was the basement design was approved for vehicle parking and it cannot be used for any other purpose. The Department of Passport was forced to issue a statement that it would use the basement for parking purposes the following Sunday night onwards.
While Shah’s drive to clear illegal structures is well-intentioned, what is missing in all the cheers and praise is the plight of a section of the people who have fallen victims.
“Only if the city had given us the notice, we would have vacated our shop on time,” said Sanjay Bhatta, whose readymade clothes' wholesale shop on the RB Complex premises in New Road was dismantled.
Bhatta said he had been operating the shop for the last three years and is yet to pay a loan of over Rs1 million to the supplier and he has stored his goods in a godown of the RB Complex.
It’s not just Bhatta who has found himself victimised by the City’s demolition drive.
Nearly two dozen small business holders inside the RB Complex say they were unaware of the city’s notice and the drive had caused them huge losses.
“When we knew about the drive that started from New Baneshwar, we had reached out to the management of the RB Complex, but one of the operators said there was no such notice, and that they would settle everything,” said Vishnu Subedi, 47, who has been running his shop in the Complex for the past decade.
“We were hoping for some business during the Dashain festival, but we have nowhere to go now,” said Subedi, a father of three children. He is worried about feeding his family and paying his room rent.
A meeting held by the RB Complex Business Group after the mall’s illegal structures were brought down asked the company for compensation, and if not, it has announced to approach the Kathmandu Metropolitan City for compensation.
However, on the first day of the demotion drive, Shah had asked victims to ask for compensation from the business/building owners.
“The owner of the RB complex is currently in Australia, and we don’t know when he will come. Who will give us justice?” asked Subedi.
Last week, the City also cleared the businesses that were being operated out of Ratnapark’s subway.
“We are also citizens of this country. We have been doing business here for over two decades. We have been paying taxes. And all of a sudden the mayor comes here with an excavator,” said a woman in her late 40s who operated a shop in the subway.
The Kathmandu Metropolitan City estimates that there are over 250,000 houses within the metropolitan area.
According to Rajunath Pandey, the newly appointed chief of the municipal police, over 300 illegal structures have been identified for immediate action.
“We will clear all illegal structures,” he said.
Asked about the compensation to victims, Pandey said the city authorities do not have any plan as such.
“The structures that have been demolished or will be demolished are illegal, and the city is not going to compensate anyone,” Pandey told the Post.
There are some concerns from some sections that the city authorities have failed to follow due process even as clearing the illegal structures is a welcome move.
The city, however, says its drive is legal and it has been following the due process.
Section 12 of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s local gazette 2075 (2018) states that if structures in Kathmandu are built against the rules set by the city, it has the right to demolish such structures.
Some urban planners like Kishor Thapa, a former government secretary, and Suman Meher Shrestha have appreciated the demolition campaign, saying that the job should have been done by someone and the mayor is doing just that.
Dambar Chemjong, head of the anthropology department at the Tribhuvan University, said Shah’s hasty decisions may lead him to legal complexities and those people who have paid tax to the city may retaliate if he does not slow down and act more cautiously.
“Though he might have done a good thing for which he is receiving praise, his approach appears to be flawed,” he said.
Recalling the then prime minister Baburam Bhattarai’s road expansion drive in 2012, Chemjong said many houses and buildings had to be demolished, but they were approached individually before they were pulled down.
“Those whose houses were demolished were given ample time. Some had even approached the court,” said Chemjong.
According to Chemjong, those at the receiving end of the current demolition drive, mostly small business holders, should have been given time before the structures from where they were operating their shops were razed.
“These people should have been approached once and taken into confidence before deploying the bulldozers,” said Chemjong. “In a democracy everyone has the right to provide their side of the argument. That’s why the process Shah has adopted is faulty.”
On August 9, the city had attempted to demolish a structure at the Norvic Hospital by issuing a 24-hour ultimatum but it backtracked and formed a probe committee to investigate the alleged encroachment.
Later, the committee was forced to stop its work after the Supreme Court issued an interlocutory order not to remove the structures built by the hospital.
The praise earned by Shah for his drive to demolish illegal structures and force business complexes and private house owners to comply with the law has prompted other municipalities to do the same.
Sunday marked Balendra Shah’s first 100 days at office, and marking the occasion, he summarised his work in six points on a Facebook status. He has mentioned the issue of removing street vendors from footpaths, delay in managing Kathmandu’s garbage, allocation of Rs10 million for e-sport, decision to build the statue of the late rapper Yama Buddha, a public event where he appeared inebriated, and his effort to demolish the illegal structure of Norvic Hospital.
“About how we fared in our first 100 days, instead of judging our work ourselves, it is more meaningful to consider how the general public viewed it,” he wrote.
“We are ready to tolerate criticism for some time but we are not ready to deviate from the long-term solution and management of the problems of the metropolitan city. We believe that we won’t disappoint the people who have trusted and supported us.”
Bhoop Dev Shah, secretary of KMC mayor, said the city has got the right person for the right post.
“He has started to do work that no other mayor has done so far,” said Bhoop Dev. “I am really happy to be part of his team, because Mayor Shah is doing what he promised.”