Kathmandu’s municipal authorities and those tasked with laying down pipelines for an ambitious water-supply project have shown breathtaking lack of responsibility and callousness to the suffering of common people. It is now clear that there was no coordination whatsoever between responsible government agencies, for instance between the Department of Roads and the Melamchi Drinking Water Project. Without it, one stretch of the road would today be dug up, and before the work of laying down pipes was even half-complete there, digging would start on another stretch. In yet another stretch, a perfectly blacktopped road would be opened up, to make minor adjustments to the pipes underneath. Most of the good roads thus damaged, and bad ones made worse, the valley’s road networks are now a complete mess. They are deadly too. Not because of the risk of vehicles being damaged by the big and small craters that mark them at regular intervals. The bigger danger now comes from the plumes of dust these dug-up roads emanate on a daily basis, collectively making them a great health hazard. The quality of air in Kathmandu five to ten times the ‘safe’ level recommended by the World Health Organization, it is an emergency.
After intense public pressure, the government on Friday formed a ‘rapid taskforce’ to take immediate measures to control air pollution in Kathmandu and to better coordinate the works of various government bodies now working on valley roads. But the taskforce, which will be headed by a joint secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister, has a tough job on its hands. It is easy to destroy existing structures; much harder to build them. It is not clear how the taskforce will help with coordination problems between different government agencies. High-ranking bureaucrats in these agencies have repeatedly defied the prime minister’s directives to hurry up construction activities. They have also nonchalantly brushed aside a similar Supreme Court order. This is why, we are afraid, the taskforce could be just another gimmick of the ruling parties to deflect public criticism this election season. That would be unfortunate. For rising dust pollution in Kathmandu is a matter of life and death for many children and elderly whose frail bodies cannot cope with sudden and drastic changes in their vicinity.
Taskforce members promise immediate steps, for instance in making sure that the funds collected via ‘pollution tax’, which all vehicles have to pay, are used to procure instruments to properly measure the levels of noxious substances in vehicle exhaust. But there is again reason for doubt. Forget procuring new material, even the sole vehicle exhaust monitoring station in the valley has been defunct for the past few years. Yes, there is these days plenty of talk on the growing menace of air pollution in Kathmandu, but little of that is translated into a tangible action. Air pollution is a ticking time bomb. The longer the problem is ignored, the more it will insidiously build. For any meaningful action, the prime minister must himself be involved, and continuously, in the urgent task of cleaning up valley air. No one else will be even half as effective.