Nepal must learn from its past

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE GARBAGE heaps of Kathmandu, which rise in ugly mounds against the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayan ranges, tell a story -- a story of blind, lopsided, urban growth in one of the poorest countries in south Asia. And what is happening in Kathmandu is symptomatic of the growing urban chaos across the developing world. But, in Nepal, it is more striking.

Nepal's geographical area is 1,47,181 sq km, but it is the 541 sq km Kathmandu valley that is the country's income-generating hub. Whether it's classrooms or casinos, medical facilites or jobs, almost everything is concentrated in the capital city and its environs. Not surprisingly, almost one million of the country's 17 million inhabitants live in the valley. And, their number is increasing because though Nepal's overall growth rate of 2.66 per cent is already one of the highest in south Asia, the valley's growth rate is a near-untenable 5 per cent.

Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong in Nepal. Frequent outbreaks of hepatitis in Kathmandu city are just warning signals that the worst is yet to come in a locale that, just a few decades ago, was one of the prettiest places in the world.

The cutting edge of chaos in Kathmandu valley can be traced to two trends -- the tourism-linked development model that Nepal has consciously promoted and the serious, ecological degradation of a fragile ecosystem, which is pushing people from their traditional environment into the urban cauldron.

These two things began manifesting themselves in the 1960s. From 1965 to 1989, Nepal's industrial force dropped from 2 per cent to 0.6 per cent -- in sharp contrast to trends in neighbouring countries. Simultaneously, Nepal's service industry labour force rose from 4 per cent to 6.5 per cent -- clear indication that tourism was being developed at the cost of other sectors. Today, except for a cement or paper factory, some mills and a controversial carpet industry, which is responsible for a major share of the polluted effluents that find their way into local rivers, Nepal has little in the way of organised industry. And, what little there is, is concentrated in Kathmandu valley.

Tourism now brings in US $70 million annually, roughly one-quarter of Nepal's foreign exchange earnings. But for each dollar earned, the country has had to pay an ecological price in the form of vast quantities of plastic mineral water bottles and bags in Kathmandu's garbage dumps and polluting cars on it sroads, and a social price in increasing dope smuggling and prostitution. Most Westerners who visit Nepal show a penchant for hypocrisy --quite keen to preach to others but rarely keen enough to pay poor countries the full ecological costs of their consumption or entertainment. The tragedy is that tourism is also a notoriously undependable industry, and Nepal, lacking any viable alternative, must live with the fear that the flow of tourist dollars may dry up some day.

Meanwhile, rural ecological degradation and deforestation are seriously undermining the capacity of communities in these areas to sustain themselves. The country has lost half its forest reserves between 1950 and 1980 and continues to lose its prime forests at the estimated annual rate of 44,000 ha. If Nepal is to escape certain catastrophe, new strategies for development have to be formulated.

As a start, new growth centres will have to be established in the countryside to divert migration to Kathmandu and preserve it from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. At the same time, more sustainable ways of using natural resources will have to be developed, whether it involves the country's forest wealth or sand from the Bagmati riverbed.

The Newars, original inhabitants of Kathmandu, were aware centuries ago of the fragility of the valley's eco-system. They built compact settlements on non-irrigated plateaus because they were extremely conscious of the need to preserve every inch of arable land so as to conserve their resource base. Today, as Kathmandu's mansions spill on to once-fertile paddy fields and Nepali administrators toy with expensive, quick-fix ideas from the West, such as flushing the polluted Bagmati with water from the Melamchi river, it's time Nepal relearns the lessons and discipline of its past. And, just as this is true for Kathmandu, it is equally true for Delhi and Dhaka.

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