EDITORIAL: Urban awakening

Most of the urban growth in Nepal is happening at the cost of fertile farmlands. Cities are using peripheral land for urban related purposes

Over half of the world today lives in cities. In Nepal, nearly two persons out of five now live in municipalities. The urban share in the national population has increased rapidly with the rural-to-urban migration and declaration of new municipalities as the major driving factors. So the country of late is seeing rapid urbanisation. Urbanisation while advances economic development, it also poses major challenges — from managing congestion and pollution to ensuring farmlands are not lost to urban sprawl and growth is inclusive and equitable. According to a report “Inclusive Cities: Resilient Communities” recently published by the Ministry of Urban Development, ineffective planning and land use regulations have resulted in haphazard growth of urban settlements within and beyond municipalities, resulting in low density urban sprawl. Urban sprawl or urbanisation is something that will continue over the years. The number of municipalities from 58 in 2011 has now increased to six metropolitan cities, 11 sub-metropolitan cities and 276 municipalities. Compared to 17 per cent of the total population living in the municipalities in 2011, the urban population now has risen to around 40 per cent. The population size in urban areas will continue to grow.

Nonetheless, the country lacks effective planning to address a wide scope of areas and the challenges associated with urban sprawl. Most of the urban growth in Nepal is happening at the cost of fertile farmlands. Cities are using peripheral land for urban related purposes for the lack of clear policies on the preservation of farmlands. This is evident in the Kathmandu Valley and the Tarai area where swathes of agricultural land have been lost to urbanisation. Farmers in peri-urban and urbanising areas are increasingly abandoning their traditional occupation in favour of more financially attractive and less labour-intensive job opportunities created by urbanisation. Urban agriculture was largely ignored until a few years ago. But still, there is no regulation as of now to control or regulate premature conversion of farmlands into urban use. Nor is there any specific policy on urban agriculture, according to the government report. Urbanisation can work as the engine of growth but simultaneously rapid loss of farmlands to urban sprawl could prompt food insecurity.

The report says land use changes are influenced mainly by investments. Hence, there is a need of integrated land use planning. The private sector can play a crucial role in urban functions. The report has recognised the private sector’s role in housing development, saying the rapid expansion of urban areas with a huge growth in organised housing has shown the potential of the private sector in the financing of urban development. Regulations within the housing sector, including building codes, standards, development permits, land use by-laws and ordinances, and planning regulations are a must to ensure quality and habitability. The new urban agenda should lay emphasis on promoting national and local housing policies. For Nepal’s urban awakening, there must be effective planning, clear policies and monitoring.

Traffic lights

None of the traffic lights functions in the Kathmandu Valley due to lack of electricity, timely maintenance and repairs. Traffic management in the Valley has become a challenging task for the traffic police during peak hours. According to Metropolitan Traffic Police Division, there are only 1,400 traffic personnel who have to manage a total of 1,042,856 vehicles that ply the streets daily and, nearly 10,000 vehicles enter the Valley from outside. Total length of roads in the Valley is 1,595 kilometres.

Had there been traffic lights in major intersections, the traffic cops would not have to manage vehicular movements manually, battling dust particles and vehicular emissions every day. Traffic police have identified 35 places where traffic lights need to be installed immediately. It may be recalled that solar energy-fed traffic lights had been installed in 10 major intersections with support from Japanese assistance some 10 years ago. But all of them have stopped functioning for want of timely replacement of batteries and maintenance. Solar energy can be the best option to operate the traffic lights. But they need proper maintenance and repairs. The traffic police should be given the responsibility to handle the traffic lights to make their work easier.