Nepal | September 29, 2020

EDITORIAL: Save public spaces

The Himalayan Times
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Saving public spaces will mean providing fresh air to the public every day and saving lives in time of emergency

Thousands of people took refuge in Tundikhel, or Khula Manch, in Kathmandu when the devastating earthquake, measuring 7.8 in magnitude, in 2015 struck the nation that left around 9,000 people dead and 23,000 others injured. A similar number of people also made the Tribhuvan University premises their temporary shelter for weeks until the aftershocks slowly started retreating. Then, people understood the importance of open spaces in the city centres. The Gorkha quake was a major one in an interval of 80 years. Seismologists believe that an earthquake like the ones that struck the nation in 1934 and in 2015 will also likely occur in the future as the Himalayan region lies in a major seismic zone. According to National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, which is working with support from the Department of Urban Development and the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, there are 488 open spaces in the Kathmandu Valley, and the Home Ministry has declared 83 of them as open spaces that can be used as temporary shelters in times of emergency. The Home Ministry has also conceded that the declared open spaces were inadequate to provide temporary shelters to the people during natural disasters. Yet most of the open spaces that could be used as recreational centres or public gathering spots have been vanishing due to the government’s negligence.

Considering the sorry state of the open spaces in the Valley, especially the pathetic condition of Khula Manch, hundreds of people, including children and elderly, formed a human chain on Saturday around the Tundikhel area, urging the government authorities to protect it so that it could be used for public purposes for all times and in times of emergency. Located in the heart of Kathmandu, Khula Manch used to be a major venue for political or public gatherings. However, after the 2015 quake, the area has been leased out to private vendors to do business, and it has also been converted into a bus park, a parking lot for private vehicles and a storage area for construction firms. The general people of the city cannot use the only open space in time of crisis. A large part of Tundikhel area has been occupied by the Nepali Army, which holds daily parades in front of the public, and it is off limits to the public. Its total length used to spread over 4 kilometres from the Dashrath Stadium in the south to Rani Pokhari in the north before 1950.

“Occupy Tundikhel” campaigners, who held this event, have demanded the government return the Tundikhel area, including a major part of the area occupied by the Nepali Army, to the public so that it could be used for public purposes. The organisers believe the Tundikhel area had always been public property, handed down by the ancestors, and it never belonged to any government agency. As per the international practice, around 40 per cent of a city area must be designated for open space or for greenery for people to exercise and to hold public gatherings. However, the Valley has less than 10 per cent greenery, making it the 7th most polluted city in the world. The only way to keep Tundikhel a public open space is to relocate the army pavilion elsewhere. Saving public spaces will mean providing fresh air to the public and saving their lives during natural disasters.

Growing suicide cases

The growing cases of suicide in the country are simply unnerving. According to Nepal Police, at least 15 people commit suicide in the country every day. Last fiscal year, 5,724 suicide cases were registered, which means the real number of cases could be much higher. Nepal ranks seventh in the suicide rate in the world, and this alarming situation demands that we do something and fast. The prevalence of mental illness among the Nepali population is high, however, there are only a handful of psychiatrists working at government health institutions, which means most of those who suffer from a mental health problem have no access to the needed consultation and care.

To mitigate the situation, the media could step in to inform the public about mental health problems and educate them about ways to prevent anxiety and fear in them. There is need for research on the causes leading to suicide, especially with a growing number of youngsters taking their life. With millions of youths living in deplorable conditions abroad to eke out a living, broken homes and psychological pressures at home, school and at the workplace, mental health is starting to become a serious issue in Nepal.

A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.

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