On the second week of October this year, an army of craftsmen were seen delicately painting the Maitighar Mandala, which had remained untouched for nearly 13 years. The Mandala, also a symbol of the last Saarc summit held in Kathmandu in 2001, was being refurbished to welcome another edition of the Saarc summit in November.
The 2001 summit was the first step towards a metamorphosis of Kathmandu’s infrastructures. Then, too, in just over a week ahead of the 11th Saarc summit, the city roads were cleaned, squatters were evicted, and multi-storied buildings were bulldozed in Maitighar to be replaced by a beautiful Mandala, outfitted with a stupa and water spouts.
This time around, as well, although plans were made much earlier, the authorities responsible to beautify Kathmandu sprang into action with only less than a month left before the summit. Under pressure, the confused authorities were struggling to complete the work by the deadline; nonetheless, their achievements were praiseworthy, proving that anything could happen, provided that the government and authorities were willing and dedicated.
Much has changed in Kathmandu in between the two summits. More importantly, the city has evolved and, in the last three years, has begun the process of becoming a well-managed metropolis. Some of the major developments in transforming Kathmandu to a liveable city include the construction of river corridors, the participation of the public in cleaning the rivers, the widening of inner streets, the construction of world-class roads, and the initiatives to build parks while maintaining and redecorating existing landmarks.
With the expansion of roads across the city, there have been some major reforms in public transportation system, as well. The government’s initial objective in widening the existing streets was to facilitate the traffic flow of vehicles and pedestrians. But stretches like Maitighar-Tinkune, which has almost been completed, are claimed to be more than just widened paths, as expressways, with service lanes, green belts, luxurious pavements and proper cycle lanes. The power crisis, impeding street lighting, has also been avoided, with around a thousand solar lamps installed in major roads of the Capital.
Earlier, critics used to argue—and the public agreed—that instead of rebuilding Kathmandu, the government should spend its money on developing other cities. Now, people have started to believe that nothing is impossible, with stakeholders even dreaming of making Kathmandu an exemplary city in, at least, South Asia.
But the initial euphoria at seeing the authorities accomplish what seemed impossible until a few years ago, might not last long. A huge amount has been invested in such a short time, but the success of the projects is yet to be ascertained and the authorities yet to be tested. Their accomplishment does not lie in just the constructions of infrastructures and outfitting of streets with hi-tech lights, but also in the maintenance of these developments.
“We know that we have had only half the success. Maintaining all these structures and infrastructures will become a major challenge in the coming days,” says Dhana Bahadur Shrestha, chief at the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) office.
The KMC office, however, cannot manage these projects alone and has been asking for public participation and support. “As soon as people show interest and believe that Kathmandu is as much theirs as ours, it would be a good balance” said Shrestha.
In order to divide the amount of work and responsibility, the stakeholders this time have opted for public-private partnerships in various projects. Hundreds of private companies, as part of their corporate social responsibility imperative, have made efforts to take care of some aspect of the government’s projects. For example, the maintenance of the green belt in the Maitighar-Tinkune road is taken care of by semi-public company, Nepal Telecom. Any additional cost incurred for the upkeep is to be borne by the telecom company, which is a big relief for the KMC office.
Similarly, a private organisation, Durbarmarg Development Board, has invested in equipping the Durbarmarg area with solar lamps. Dozens of companies have made efforts to clean and maintain the banks of the Bagmati River, which witnessed significant changes this year. “The private companies have now realised the need for change and are finally willing to lend us support,” says Shrestha.
Unfortunately, flaws in the designs of the infrastructure upgrades have already been exposed. The lack of proper zebra crossings on the roads has made it difficult for the pedestrians while inadequate road paraphernalia—such as—has been a nightmare for vehicle drivers, who have started enjoying speed on the valley roads. Reports have also started coming in that the recently installed solar lights have stopped functioning because of technical failures. Also, in some parts of the road, the plants have started to wither away as a result of carelessness and harsh winter. All these cases ask the authorities whether it is easy to build than to save?
Some city planners are positive that all will be preserved. “The transformation is for the present; the preservation for the future. We have to build strategies to protect the recent makeover,” says Bhaikaji Tiwari, chief at the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Implementation Committee.
Contrary to what officials say, a major challenge threatens the preservation of the recently renovated roads. In near future, authorities will have to lay down the pipelines supplying drinking water from the Melamchi River. This means demolishing the 1000-km big and small roads in the Capital in the next two years. Authorities involved say that the plan is to incur as minimal of damage as possible to the roads while the Melamchi project has promised to repair the damaged roads.
Now, remains a crucial question: Did we achieve all these significant changes in the Capital’s appearance because of the Saarc summit?
Development commissioner Yogeshwor Parajuli at the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) says that the summit was just a reason to make the changes. “All of these changes had already been announced in our plans, which, because of lack of adequate budget and willpower, had been just stored away in files,” says Parajuli. “When the government said that an infrastructure overhaul was required for the summit, it provided us an opportunity to carry out our projects.”
Post-Saarc summit, the continuation of the development activities at the pre-Saarc pace has already been stalled. Most of the prospective plans of beautification have been halted, citing severe budget crisis. Included among these plans is the renovation of Kamalpokhari, now delayed because of inadequate funds. The government, which initially gave a green signal to the plan, has refused to invest more, making the future of the landmark pond uncertain. “We have requested the government to support us with additional funds. We want to, at least, complete the ongoing projects,” says Tiwari.
Despite all these challenges, valley authorities have woken up to the need for infrastructure development, which keeps evolving according to the demands of time and citizens. Kathmandu is still struggling to provide the best facilities—well-managed roads, traffic, and public transportation—but it is moving in the right direction.