After years of apathy, the government has finally woken up to the fact that a large number of people in Kathmandu are suffering from the adverse effects of air pollution and something needs to be done urgently. The long abandoned emission tests have been revived, starting with government vehicles. Air quality is not just about visible pollutants but more about the tiny, invisible particles that get into our lungs and find their way into our bloodstream and eventually into our hearts. The level of such harmful particles are alarmingly high in the valley air and Kathmandu has been ranked fifth in the Pollution Index 2017 among the most polluted cities in the world; no laughing matter. It is a known fact that pollution causes heart disease besides respiratory related illnesses and the number of fatalities owing to pollution is truly shocking. Deaths related to air pollution is one of the highest worldwide according to recent reports.
Decades ago we did have emission tests which improved the air quality and one of the biggest moves by the authorities was the banning of the most polluting vehicles, the smoke belching Vikram tempos from the streets of the Capital city. But as with all rules and regulations, corruption stepped in to hamper the emission tests when those monitoring pollution levels of motor vehicles resorted to selling the Green Stickers. These stickers were given to vehicles that passed the emission tests and were deemed officially non-polluting or within the accepted levels of pollutants. But when polluting vehicles started displaying these stickers, the whole practice became meaningless. Then instead of taking action against the corrupt personnel, the government chose to scrap the tests altogether. That’s the story of our life in Kathmandu valley. Drastic measures need to be taken to curb pollution soon.
There are some forms of pollution that are difficult to control such as the dust that engulfs much of the city these days. Some effort is being made to remove debris from the roads but that may have little effect. We cannot halt development; we can only rue the fact that all this development work could have been completed decades ago. When we travel abroad especially in the capital cities, we are never greeted by dug up roads as happens in Kathmandu perennially because they completed the task a long time ago. What our city fathers lacked was foresight. Even before we did, our neighbors in far away Beijing (I think it was called Peking back then) saw the need of a circular road around our capital to deal with traffic congestion that was inevitably coming. So they built the Ring Road back in the day when there were so few motor vehicles in the city that I used to sit inside Café de Park in Ratna Park and actually count the cars passing by in the evenings. Imagine what the traffic in mid-town would have looked like today without the Ring Road to take the bulk of the load?
The winter season brings its own dilemma with people especially those who have moved here from the tarai lighting open fires to keep warm. Some of these fires are quite large and produce huge plumes of smoke that rise up to mix with the rest of the pollutants. This is especially true of early mornings and evenings when of course generally, pollution levels are already the highest in the valley. Compounding the problem are then those people who like to burn their rubbish which more often than not includes plastics. The worst offenders are the young boys who burn tires and then there are the farmers who burn what remains after the harvest. Further out at the edges of the valley are the biggest polluters, the brick factories. People living in Bhaktapur often complain how the winter months are the worst and they are reluctant to even open the windows because of the smoke from these kilns. All these pollutants going up into the valley air are churned into a deadly mix of toxins that will destroy lives.
Even the Melamchi project should have been started decades ago. Didn’t we always have water shortages? We were dependant on a water system established during the Rana regime. A Japanese entrepreneur named Miyahara living in Nepal since the 60s had made a well-researched plan for bringing Melamchi water back in the 70s. We should take notice of his development plans for Nepal. He has planned a satellite city for Pokhara and now is the time to build one. Our planners waited until Kathmandu became overcrowded and unmanageable before coming up with a plan to build satellite cities. The whole idea of building such cities is to avoid overcrowding in the main city. Remember Islamabad was built from scratch in the 1960s because Rawalpindi was getting overcrowded. We should already be planning the growth of Banepa by building wider roads, parks and a larger bus station. What they built instead is an IT Park without a feasibility study and eventually found out nobody wanted to go there. What a waste of time, money and man power! In a decade or two, Banepa will resemble congested Kathmandu. Now is the time to plan the growth of Banepa, Pokhara and other towns and cities across the country. Why don’t we hear of Five Year Plans anymore?
The KMC plans to build a park in every ward. We are all for it but we also hope they will find space for it. One open space in Tilganga is now gone, and a massive building to house pilgrims has taken its place. Parks have to be built before a city grows into a metropolis, which means they need to be incorporated into the plan if there is one. The park in Narayan Chaur was born out of pure luck since nothing had been constructed there despite its superb location. An eye opener is the bahals around old Kathmandu which were built for the good of the community and predated the houses that grew around them. These are communal spaces where all activities take place; children play, women dry clothes and grains, dramas take place and even feasts can be held. It is hard to understand how administrators some centuries ago could plan their cities while today in the 21st century, all our cities are growing haphazardly with no apparent planning. Walking around the outskirts of Kathmandu, one will notice how unplanned the growth has been. There is still room for this city to grow and planning is the need of the hour.
Another worrying matter that needs to be looked into and taken seriously is the rising number of suicides and the growing number of people suffering from depression. Depression is the leading cause for suicides and that calls for immediate action to be taken to help those suffering to seek professional help in the form of counseling and medical assistance. A surprisingly large number of them are young people who not only feel peer pressure but also have to deal with the high expectations of parents. It is a fiercely competitive world today.
Depression has never been recognized as a serious problem in the east and it is a topic rarely talked about in Nepal. With modernization and growing competition in the cities, many people feel inadequate or are unable to cope with the stress and go into a depression. With nobody even recognizing the problem, most cases go untreated. Depression is a serious problem among Kathmanduites and measures have to be taken to combat this scourge. It has taken many lives and without concerted efforts from the government, there is little hope of bringing it under control.
Pollution control, city planning, traffic management and health monitoring are vital to ensure that citizens enjoy a good, meaningful life in our cities. But as things stand, there is unchecked pollution, no planning, chaotic traffic and unnecessary traffic jams besides health risks that come with modernization. All these factors compounded by an unforeseen population explosion can guarantee only one thing to Kathmanduites: frustration.