They say you can get a sense of the beauty of any city from the air – the bright lights, the roads, houses, greenery, landmark monuments and the like. If you are the sort of person who likes the window seat on airplanes (which I do) you would have noticed these details as you come in to land at most airports around the world. When it comes to Kathmandu, it’s a bit, err, different, for lack of a better word. Whereas in other cities you might see neat streets at right angles, well lit roads, and some semblance of planning, over here what greets you is just a grey jumble of concrete houses like Lego blocks and what can only be described as a textbook case of haphazard, unchecked urbanization. And all of this visibility is only during daylight hours. At night, it’s near impossible trying to spot anything from the air.
For the new Nepal, development is an oft-repeated buzzword, despite the fact, that for as long as multiparty democracy has existed in Nepal, it has always remained just that – a buzzword.
It’s something we were promised and also craved for but now that the wheels of development are starting to move – albeit at a snail’s pace – it’s time we also looked and considered the other side of the coin in the form of conservation.
In the mad rush for development we tend to ignore the need to strike a balance between moving forward and conserving our present – whether they be natural endowments like lakes or hill ranges or inheritances of cultural and traditional importance like our durbars, squares, and settlements. As we bulldoze our way to roads, highways and developments, it’s fair to say that conservation is probably the last thing on our agenda because no one stands to benefit from it – at least no one who matters. The fact of the matter is that you cannot hope to develop and then after the process look to conserve – they must go hand in hand otherwise they will be nothing to left to conserve once the dust from all that development has settled.
The residents of Khokana and Bungamati have been protesting against several development projects that threaten sites of cultural significance for them. Albeit there are issues of inadequate compensation for land embedded in these protests, the issues raised are not without merit. The international airport at Nijgadh, if and when it is built, promises to come at a great cost to the environment with the felling of thousands of trees that, in the words of conservationists, can be mitigated with better planning. The past and the present don’t really feature very prominently in our future planning and even the compulsory Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) that are a prerequisite for any major undertakings is seen by many as a mere formality. In short, it doesn’t serve any purpose at all.
It’s in the name of this very development that we have been breathing this toxic air in the capital for the good part of a decade now and there’s no telling when it will get any better. To make matters worse, the earthquake of 2015 destroyed a lot of old buildings, temples, historical structures and settlements in and around the valley. And judging by the snail’s pace of work and government apathy towards restoration of heritage sites, it will be quite some time before we see them restored to their former glory. It’s only now, three years after the quake, that we have started the process of reconstructing the Dharara and if the restoration of an iconic monument like that can take so much time then one wonders about the other myriad architectural wonders that have been passed down to us by previous generations.
Or you have to hope that someone or the other takes it upon themselves to give us a hand with the restoration work like the Japanese are doing at Patan Durbar Square. If left to us, our monuments will probably resemble concrete monstrosities and the recently botched attempt to restore Rani Pokhari is testament to that fact. It’s been repeated ad infinitum that tourists flock to see our unique ancient buildings, squares, and monuments of cultural and religious significance in addition to all the natural beauty that the country has to offer. When we cannot see the importance of conserving Fewa Lake, for example, no amount of bars, restaurants and spas along its banks are going to draw tourists to Pokhara.
No self-respecting tourist would waste all that time and take the trouble to come here to see malls, bars, and concrete blocks that they can probably see better versions of at home. Rome is a great example of what draws tourists in and even the half crumbling ruins of the Coliseum find favor with tourists as long as they are well conserved. When we couple our ineptitude in conserving our natural and man-made inheritances with a chronic lack of development (read infrastructure and connectivity), there is an ever-present danger of the steady stream of tourists slowly declining. As long as this government apathy towards conservation continues, we run the risk of no longer being unique or exotic, just run of the mill. And given all that we are blessed with, that would be a real shame.