Nepal | September 30, 2020

Pollution in Kathmandu: Interventions needed

Jiba Raj Pokharel
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The National Reconstruction Authority should, thus, think out of the box towards preparing a plan for Kathmandu rather than relying on conventional approaches which cannot take us as far as needed in the present time

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

Kathmandu has been enveloped by a thick layer of dust and vehicular emissions. Like two tigers which hunt in pairs, these two together have been causing massive injury to the health and even death of the residents of Kathmandu. The existing quantum of the particulate matters which indicate the level of pollution has already dwarfed the World Health Standards. There is, thus, a dire need to make appropriate interventions to bring the environment of Kathmandu to its pristine glory.

However it is not only Kathmandu that is in the grip of pollution. Beijing and Delhi are streets ahead in this regard. If we peep into the past, cities like New York and Chicago had a nightmarish experience. New York in particular was very filthy because of the numerous horses employed for transport. The manure used to pile up in the streets emitting odious smell beyond imagination. Horses used to stumble on the cobble stone streets sometimes leading to their death and in 1880, 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets. 20,000 New Yorkers died from the maladies that flew in the air created by horse manure every year.

Chicago was not any better. It was like something that can be seen in the Kathmandu streets these days. There were no signage, nor stoplights neither zebra crossings. The streets displayed diverse and often contradictory uses. Custom governed the flow of traffic not signage and the universal rule of keeping to the right went often unheeded. Pedestrians stood at the middle of the streets waiting for the arriving cars, and they crossed from wherever they thought it to be fit. Horse driven vehicles slowed the movement of the vehicles as the loading and unloading was done according to their convenience.  As in New York, 5,000 horses died in the streets in 1909 and the city Bureau of Streets never removed them instantly. Legal decisions always restricted the municipality government’s decision and ability to regulate street uses. When the Government enacted new ordinances, people used to breach them instead of observing them.

But how did these cities make an incredible comeback after such a tumultuous history can perhaps be very useful for Nepal. In the case of New York, electrical vehicles were introduced instead of the horse carriages which brought about exponential decrease in pollution. In Chicago, a plan was prepared by Daniel Burnham following the wave of what was popularly known as the Beautiful City Movement. It began with the World’s Columbian exposition of 1893 which was attended by 21 million people when its population was 66 million. The visitors were surprised by the clean, electrically lighted and beautifully planned ground of the world fare. Daniel Burnham shot into national fame after this exhibition. A Chicago Plan Commission was chartered by the City Government to implement the plan which consisted of mammoth 328 people with the participation of people of all walks of life but with the dominance of the business sector. The implementation of the plan took two decades for its completion.

In Kathmandu, planning has however been something of an endangered species in view of the adoption of the Vedic plans going back to Lichchhavi times and even before, for example a Prastara plan for Handi Gaon, the then Lichchhavi capital or Karmuka plan for Pashupati area. Kathmandu has, thus, hardly been addressed from city planning perspectives since not only decades but centuries together.

It is against this backdrop that the post-earthquake Kathmandu should be planned anew as was Skopje of then the Yugoslavia after an earthquake struck it in 1963. An international competition was held and the planner of Lumbini, late Kenzo Tange, got the first prize. The National Reconstruction Authority should, thus, think out of the box towards preparing a plan for Kathmandu rather than relying on conventional approaches which cannot take us as far as needed in the present time. As can be seen from Chicago, environmental improvement of the cities is a time consuming affair and needs lots of patience and sustained efforts.

Apart from the aforementioned long term plan, short term improvement measures like storing and carrying construction materials in containers, the covering of the construction site rather than exposing it wide open, undertaking the construction in part instead of the whole and beginning the construction work late in the evening and completing it overnight will help alleviate considerably the dust pollution in the city.  Adoption of such short term as well as long term plans will certainly help transform unclean Kathmandu to poet Bhanubhakta’s Alkapuri Kantipuri Nagari.

For this, the bureaucracy should be changed into technocracy to begin with. Urban planning is technical work which cannot be fully understood by the ministers and the secretaries with nontechnical background. Either the party in the Government should appoint the respective professionals as the ministers, or it should form an autonomous and independent body as Chicago formed a Chicago Plan Committee to implement the Chicago Plan. And autonomy should be fully observed as against the present practice of violating it shamelessly by some of the callous and indifferent bureaucrats, if not by all.

A version of this article appears in print on April 11, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.

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