I think everyone will agree that Kathmandu is far from being a clean city. The piles of garbage on roadsides, exuding all kinds of disgusting smells of putrefied waste, gags your breath and make you want to puke. And, if you think this is maybe a temporary problem, think again. A couple of years back, while interviewing the head of the Nepal Tourism Board, I had told him that just outside his office was what appeared to be practically a garbage dump on the roadside, and how was he going to explain that to tourists? His reply was really astounding. He said, “That’s what tourists come to Nepal to see!” I don’t think one could go lower than that in demeaning one’s responsibility. Thank God, he isn’t in that post anymore, although he is still called upon sometimes on TV shows to expound on his crooked expertise now and then.
And, thank God that, today, we seem to have a couple that can maybe make a difference occupying the seats of mayor and deputy mayor. The millennials, mostly, who have come of voting age, have cast their votes in droves in their favor this time, along with quite a few disillusioned older folk who are fed up of the same old “do nothing-talk much-pocket what you can” shenanigans of politics and political parties. However, looking at how the rapper mayor seems to be taking a leaf out of the comedian Ukrainian president’s book and making sure that everything he does and says gets on TV and social media, one has to warn him that that’s not enough. Zelensky revels in taking selfies while giving big talk, but doesn’t realize that his lack of diplomatic adroitness in living amicably alongside a powerful neighbor has already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of his people and the total destruction of his country. He should have asked us here in Nepal about how to do the fine balancing act of retaining one’s sovereignty without giving away one’s pride even if one is sandwiched between two great powers that are eternally on a war footing against one another.
No, leave the media out of it, Mr. Mayor. Just do your job in a quietly determined manner, building rapport with your team, and getting things done one at a time. Don’t worry, this city is so “fohor”, even the smallest improvement will be lauded by its citizens. Hype is all well and good for celebrity stuff, not so for those facing uphill challenges that can only be tackled in a more serious vein.
Okay, having said that (which needed to be said, since it is primarily the municipality that can change the ignonimous title of “Fohor Kathmandu”), let’s move on to other matters. Come the warmer months, and if you are stuck in traffic on the Thapathali bridge, you’ll be treated to a warm and pungent odor of rotting waste emanating from the sluggishly flowing muddy river below. I have always thought that rivers are the soul of any city. In fact, many great civilizations have been built around the great rivers flowing through their midst. The Seinne in Paris, the Thames in London, the Bosphorous in Istanbul—these are some of the great rivers and the great cities that come to mind when on this subject. The Ganga and Varanasi must also be mentioned in the same breath, although much still needs to be done to make this great river cleaner, less polluted, and more worthy of its name. Not that the government is not trying to do so, spending vast amounts of money on this one project of cleaning the Ganga.
Now, how about our very own Bagmati River? I have often heard of the Kathmandu valley being referred to as a Bagmati civilization; if this is true, then we should all bow down our heads in shame, seeing as to how it has become more of a sewer than a river. Not that some do-gooders of good conscience haven’t tried to right things by conducting mass campaigns of clearing this once great river of pollutants and garbage month after month for many months. But, what has been the result? Not as hoped for, sad to say. People are realizing that cleaning up millions of liters of flowing water, in which all kinds of waste are dumped continuously throughout its length and breadth, requires a more scientific approach.
Now, if only our new mayor and deputy mayor would shun the limelight and instead concentrate on just these two things—managing the solid waste of the city and reviving the great Bagmati River to its original pristine state of being—they will have achieved greatness and a worthy place in history. Perhaps we can request help for the former from our mighty northern neighbor, and help from our equally mighty southern neighbor for the latter? Apparently, keeping our past track record in mind, we cannot do it by ourselves. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s first order of business was that China become clean. Reportedly, ward chairmen could be seen in the wee hours of the morning scouring the streets with a broom in their hand, looking for even the smallest bit of trash. They would be fined heavily if the streets under their ward were found to be even the tiniest bit unclean by inspectors who came around for routine inspection. And in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first order of business after coming to office some eight years ago was to make the Ganga clean, and one can gauge the seriousness with which this task has been taken up by the fact that a whopping IRs.30, 000 crore has been sanctioned for projects targeted towards un-polluting the badly tainted holy river.
But, some things we can surely do without any outside help. Such as placing tall and deep waste containers all over the city (green color, of course!), with handles on both sides, so they can be picked up easily and dumped into the concerned waste carrying vehicles. A word on such vehicles—I have always thought that a city’s cleanliness can be judged by the cleanliness of its waste containers and waste carrying vehicles. Do they have to be dirty? Perhaps our engineering geniuses could devise vehicles especially for transporting waste. In the West, such vehicles have grinding machines that pulverize solid waste in the vehicles themselves.
Now, we come to the chaotic condition of traffic in the city. Let me tell you straight off, driving on Sundays was a pleasure for some time due to the simple reason that all government offices had been ordered closed for the time being on both Saturdays and Sundays. A journey of an hour was easily possible in half the time, the roads seemed wide enough, the traffic stops thankfully short, and pedestrians could walk the footpaths without getting their lungs clogged by poisonous petrol and diesel fumes balefully snorted out by ramshackle vehicles, especially almost-junk buses and trucks that should have been put to pasture years ago. Now, how can such an idyllic situation be maintained on all days of the week? One simple solution is to do away with separate vehicles for government employees, whatever rank they may be, including ministers, (as well as private corporation and INGOs/NGOs counterparts), and arrange luxurious mini-buses that will pick them up for work and drop them off after. Another simple solution is to ask schools to have certain specific bus stop locations, where students can gather at a specified time, instead of those huge buses jamming up narrow roads by picking up each and every student close to their homes, some desperate schools even picking up and dropping children at the doorsteps!
Another thing about traffic management is the funny situation of having seven-eight policemen at crossroads and such, even though there are signal lights (which, God alone knows why, just keep blinking). Maintain the lights, Kathmandu’s citizens are savvy and law abiding enough to obey the signals. Remember how honking was made history in a day by the simple act of placing a few “No Horn” posters around the city streets?
What else makes Kathmandu ‘fohor’? Construction material strewn on roadsides (ban them immediately; let the contractors make their own arrangements for suitable storage); plumes of dust and dirt because of the sinfully slow pace of maintenance or construction of streets, roads, and lanes going on at all times, in all seasons. Don’t allow such work unless there are concrete plans to finish them by a specific time. Perhaps we should ask our ambassadors to try and get some modern construction machinery as donations from developed countries (let them earn their daily bread, instead of just being glorified figureheads!)
Well, for a start, these are the things that come to mind when talking about “Fohor Kathmandu” I am sure there are many more, such as the need to plant lakhs of trees all around the city, including housing developments (where houses should be only allowed to be built around existing trees, instead of cutting them all down, as is the case now). Developers should first be made to develop a green landscape before building concrete buildings. I am of the firm belief that trees are our treasures, and they should be cut down only as a last resort, only after all other options have run out.
In the last few years, I have been witness to the sad sight of a sizeable forested hillock being transformed into an arid area of dust and sand in Lalitpur, close to the city, in preparation for one more housing ‘development’. If this is the kind of ‘development’ we seek, then there is not much hope for making Kathmandu ‘fohor-free’. The purity of the air we breathe in owes much to the amount of greenery around us. Without pure air, we are all doomed to a life of ill-health and disease. As it is, our country is already in the top 10 list of most polluted cities in the world, based on air quality. The party in power right now has the tree as its election symbol. It is right then to demand that they mobilize their large number of cadres to spend a few months planting fast growing trees of many hues and colors all over the city. What could be a better, and immediately visible, promotional gambit for the upcoming polls?
By doing all this and more, I hope we all live to see the day when we can proudly say, “Safa Kathmandu”.