11 MIN READ
On Friday, May 28, before he was officially named mayor of Kathmandu, Balendra ‘Balen’ Shah visited Sisdole, an area that houses Kathmandu’s largest landfill site, and spoke to locals. He listened to their grievances and promised to resolve them while addressing Kathmandu’s gargantuan trash problem.
Since taking office, Mayor Shah has attempted to follow up on that promise with the formation of a committee headed by Deputy Mayor Sunita Dangol. But it is still too early to tell if Shah will be able to act decisively and resolve the garbage problem sustainably.
Kathmandu Metropolitan City has a host of problems, garbage just being one of them. Shah and Dangol, both of whom were elected with large mandates, have not just inherited the keys to the city, but also its hopes and aspirations — and with it, its preexisting faults. But hopes are high that this young duo, the youngest leaders ever in Kathmandu’s history, will be able to fix some of these issues.
The first part of fixing a problem is to figure out what they actually are. Bimala Rai Paudyal, a member of the National Assembly of the Federal Parliament, says that when it comes to a city like Kathmandu, the issues are less about development and more about management.
“Kathmandu is a historic and culturally rich city. It is a part of the country’s identity and serves as a mascot for the nation on a global front. Kathmandu’s present image as a polluted and chaotic mess of a city is amplified to the rest of the world as Nepal, which makes it all the more important to make it better,” said Paudyal, who holds a doctorate in development studies and was previously a member of the National Planning Commission.
Better waste management
According to Paudyal, the city desperately needs a long-term sustainable solution that addresses Kathmandu’s chronic waste issue from the household level.
Household waste generated from the capital has been a big predicament for many years. So far, the valley has been dumping its waste in areas such as Sisdole since 2005. But this is little more than a band-aid covering a bullet hole. Dumping grounds like the ones at Sisdole have been used long past their capacities, and its residents have long contested the system in place.
Experts like Paudyal believe that it is not that Kathmandu is incapable of handling such issues, but rather that it has had bad management.
“Were we to have a government-mandated system where waste could be categorized and segregated at the household level, we could even run a good organic fertilizer or biofuel factory,” she said.
READ ALSO: Kathmandu’s garbage problem is a mess
In Shah’s campaign manifesto, he has mentioned plans to better segregate the waste that Kathmandu produces. This includes plans to convert organic waste into usable manure which can then be sold to other agro-focused districts. Since taking office, Shah has made garbage a primary issue. However, his waste management plans also include a proposal for an incinerator near the metropolitan city.
Shristina Shrestha, an urban planner at the not-for-profit Lumanti organization and an architect by training, is doubtful of the effects of such plans on the city’s already high air pollution.
“The city should rather work with experts and organizations that specialize in recycling. If done right, it is not impossible to upcycle Kathmandu's waste,” she said.
In the short time that he has been in office, Shah has reassured Sisdole residents that Kathmandu will work towards an alternative waste management solution. However, his requests to Sisdole residents to not obstruct Kathmandu's waste dumping, for the time being, has been met with resistance by locals. As of the time of writing, the garbage in Kathmandu continues to pile and a definitive solution has yet to materialize.
According to Shrestha, Kathmandu can learn from other cities when it comes to better managing solid waste.
“Waling is one place where they’ve handled waste very well and even cities like Bhaktapur have provisions for waste collection vehicles with dedicated compartments for biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. If residents don’t segregate their waste, then the collectors don’t accept it at all,” said Shrestha.
The municipality of Waling in Syangja district has initiated projects like the Promoting Green Recovery Project to recycle plastic, construct green parks, and even set up a biogas plant. The municipality has also allocated separate days for the collection of organic and inorganic waste, requiring households to segregate waste into dry recyclables, wet compostables, and glass.
Better transport systems
According to activist and environmental engineer Bhusan Tuladhar, the major problem with Kathmandu’s public transportation system is how it appears to have been developed on a whim. He complains that the city lacks a coherent transportation plan that takes into account infrastructure, public transport, and alternative modes of transport like walking and cycling.
Tuladhar says that he has always been doubtful of the lofty promises that past mayors and ministers have made about futuristic monorails and metro networks.
“Sure, Kathmandu could benefit from the existence of a few metro lines but that takes a lot of time, resources, and technical know-how. Simpler solutions like a Bus Rapid Transit system in areas like the Ring Road are much more economical and efficient solutions to the same problem,” he said.
Mayor Shah’s manifesto includes a plan to bring all public transport services under one umbrella organization and to proceed with the electrification of the city’s public transport. He also has plans to create apps for the city’s taxis and other public vehicles, as well as introduce a monthly universal prepaid transport card.
But public transport is closely related to the city’s roads, and that is another area that needs improvement. Paudyal pointed out that Kathmandu’s poor roads are often a result of a lack of coordination amongst different departments. Roads in the city are often built, destroyed, and then rebuilt over and over again because the city does not properly coordinate with the different departments that look after the city’s water supply, roads, sanitation, and power lines.
“The road outside my own home that had only been constructed a few months prior is again a muddy mess after it was destroyed to install a new set of water pipelines,” Paudyal said.
Kathmandu needs a rapid war room-like response unit — not just for road development but also to coordinate and mobilize the different actors and organs that are working within the city.
Mayor Shah had proposed an ‘infrastructure ambulance’ to fix potholes and roads during his election campaign but there is no telling when or if this will materialize.
Public spaces and public housing
“We as humans need spaces where we can socialize. Our homes are private structures that are limited to us, but we also need easily accessible public structures where the community can come together,” said Shrestha, who specializes in human-centric design and development. “Kathmandu desperately needs to bring back the notion of communal chowks and hitis.”
Paudyal too acknowledges the need for more, better managed open spaces in the city.
“Many people living in Kathmandu don’t own their own residences. Many rent flats and rooms that are often small. More public open spaces will help improve the quality of life of the people living in Kathmandu,” she said.
But it is not just public open spaces like parks and playgrounds that need to be developed. A city also needs space for public housing, something that Kathmandu desperately lacks.
While Kathmandu has attempted to relocate the city’s homeless and squatter population before, these measures have been largely unsuccessful. A key example is the now desolate Ichangu Narayan public housing project that was constructed during the Baburam Bhattarai administration.
Shrestha says that a good way to support low-income city dwellers get their own residences is to finance property acquisition through low-interest government-subsidized housing loans. Lumanti has worked with Kirtipur to develop a low-rise community housing project through the aid of an Urban Community Support Fund. She believes that more active implementation of such funds could help better handle the city’s housing crisis.
“Kathmandu has a lot of slum areas that are highly unmanaged. We as a city need to figure out how we can get basic livelihood services to those people. This includes the bare minimum like clean water, electricity, education, and public housing,” Paudyal said.
Shah has promised more open spaces for the city — around 42 to 47 in the next five years and has shared plans for more greenery in public spaces like malls, hospitals, schools, and footpaths. However, he does not seem to have a definitive plan to tackle the city’s public housing issues as of yet.
Heritage, culture, and city aesthetics
“Aside from having the necessary infrastructure and various utility services, a city also has to be culturally in tune. The culture and tradition of a place are what unite the people as a community,” said Shrestha.
Paudyal too believes that the city should take steps to conserve Kathmandu’s unique cultural identity.
“At least for the structures and buildings that the local government oversees, efforts must be made to follow traditional aesthetics,” she said. “Sure we need modern technology and design but we also need to have a standard that we adhere to when we develop public infrastructure. We need a Kathmandu that can visually showcase its rich tradition, culture, and history.”
Both Paudyal and Shrestha believe that when public structures follow a set aesthetic standard, private houses and buildings will likely follow suit.
“While the number of traditional brick houses are on the rise, such styles haven’t been as well enforced in Kathmandu as in old Bhaktapur or Patan. People should be given incentives to work with their wards and local governments to construct buildings that appear more cohesive and less chaotic,” said Shrestha.
Throughout his campaign, Shah displayed a keen interest in Kathmandu’s Newa architecture and heritage and has shown interest in improving the city’s aesthetics. Through his manifesto, he announced provisions for houses in core city areas to be eligible for a traditional facelift, as well as introducing courses that focus on integrating Newa architecture into engineering and architecture curricula. He also has plans to support guthis, bihars, and gumbas, and even global branding/marketing plans for festivals like Kukkur Tihar and Mha Puja.
High hopes and high hurdles
Shah and Dangol have only been in office for a week but hope is riding high on this young, dynamic duo. The road ahead for Shah and Dangol will be tough and will involve coordination among a lot of moving parts. While the fact that Shah is an independent is encouraging to many, as he will not need to abide by any party agenda, it also means that Shah might lack the necessary support and political strength to run the nation’s capital city.
In a previous interview with The Record, urban planner and former independent candidate during the 2017 local election Kishore Thapa warned that legacy parties might work against independents like Shah to put them in a negative light.
“Old parties tend to have a strong urgency for power. If they can’t hold office then they will try to influence policy decisions in one way or the other. If an independent without party backing did actually end up in office, it’s highly likely that entire parties will work against the new face,” Thapa had said.
Paudyal agrees that Shah will not have an easy time working.
“Big parties carry a lot of ego and this can result in a lot of friction when it comes to actually getting work done. Parties too must learn to cooperate with the new, young, and energetic leadership that the city now has,” she said.
Kathmandu needs a lot of things to improve in the next five years, but one thing that many seem to agree on is that they want to see small but consistent changes over promises of big developments that never seem to materialize.
“I want them [Mayor Shah and his team] to focus on smaller things,” said Paudyal. “Things such as cleaner streets, better cable management, fewer potholes.”
Sajeet M. Rajbhandari Sajeet is a Media Studies undergraduate and is currently reporting for The Record.
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