The government’s new proposal to narrow down monument zones in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site — a conglomeration of seven UNESCO-identified monument zones — has been perceived as an idea leading to gradual phasing out of the monuments of lesser opulence but which in fact are recognised by the Western world as the unique fabric of Nepali culture. It is understandable that the latest step based on the “zoom-out approach” to concentrate conservation efforts on any specific monument of international repute within a zone might as well have been prompted by fund constraints, among others. But that such a drastic and narrow approach should be adopted to preserve the Sites — each one often described by experts as an open museum — especially in the aftermath of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site being inscribed in the List of World Heritage in Danger last July, bodes ill for the country’s conservation endeavours.
Any heritage site, not to mention Kathmandu Valley, comprises a range of other components such as its people and their culture, art, architecture and life style. Take away any one of these and the mosaic becomes that much more incomplete. Similarly, to ignore the minor edifices, as the plan appears to have envisaged, which have served as eloquent expressions of Nepali heritage, is but to render the landscape of Nepali heritage picture a bit more fuzzy. It is true that redefining the borders of these monument zones would no doubt make the task of preserving them better. But the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and other agencies concerned should not be too inflexible in their approach while delimiting the borders. This will offer an excuse to undesirable elements in and around the Sites to poach on the tangible as well as intangible cultural values embodied in them.
If, for example, the proposal to delist traditional settings of the residential Newari houses around the historic palaces of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur is true, it is hard to conceive how this will contribute to the conservation of the core heritage monuments. To some extent, the peripheral structures have been acting as buffer zones, as a protective shield until now. With the collateral edifices about to be delisted, it is hard to visualise how a sustainable action plan involving different stakeholders can be worked out. Careful guidelines will have to be chalked out for the local management committees engaged in conservation. Unless the government presents a convincing case to the World Heritage Centre in Paris saying how the latest proposal will help preserve the monuments, it is unlikely that Nepal will succeed in wooing the Centre to delist the Valley from the danger list.