TOPICS: Paradise lost: Kathmandu’s decadence

Swarming with 1.5 million people, the Kathmandu Valley is grappling with rapid urbanisation, rampant construction, environmental degradation, congestion and crime, compounded by administrative lethargy. This state may be called anomie or a breakdown of social norms and values.

Is it not an irony that Kathmandu’s residents, who take pride in reclaiming political freedoms, display utter apathy towards resolving civic problems? Pervasive state and market failures are reflected in low civic awareness, dilapidated and inadequate urban infrastructure, lack of enforcement of rules and coordination among local government institutions. Absence of vision reflects the low priority given to civic issues in the national debate; nor are these issues driven by local communities. That public awareness about halting the degradation of the Bagmati is left to appeals by Hutaram Baidya requires no elaboration.

The state of the capital tells much about attempts to promote the country as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, tourism will fail to be a catalyst for economic development given the sorry state of solid waste management, air and water pollution, encroachment of public space, smoke-belching vehicles and traffic jams. In an era of rapid globalisation whereby economic activities are being decentralised, fuelling job creation and sustaining income growth, the failure to upgrade localities would risk steady erosion in competitiveness.

Nepal’s quest for sustained economic development depends upon creating an environment not prone to civic breakdown. Economic, social, political and cultural progress requires a semblance of order. The capital is characterised by anarchy and negative spillovers in the use of public resources. Rising levels of air pollution are the cause of the steep rise in respiratory disorders. Traffic-related fatalities are on the rise.

But how can the Kathmanduites address the situation? There is ample room for the vibrant civil society to undertake advocacy for a better Kathmandu. Nepal’s thriving non-governmental sector, which has gained considerable expertise in community forestry, conflict resolution, decentralisation and empowerment, should mobilise the capital’s citizens to discard their lethargy to make Kathmandu a safer, cleaner and better place. Decentralisation would also reduce the pressure on the capital vis-à-vis its infrastructure. A pertinent issue is to nurture local democracy to enable citizens to comprehend that rights and duties complement each other. Preventing decadence requires revamping existing attitudes, policies and institutions that are attuned to changing local and global needs.

The decadence is not entirely a one-sided phenomenon. It coexists with the attitude of its dwellers. That is where the problem lies and so does the solution. Communities thrive because of their consideration and sensitivity towards their social and ecological environments. Without a culture that invokes civic values in individuals, enforcement of rules and regulations will only be a token gesture.