Urban Poor in Kathmandu: A Failure to accept the reality of our Cities.

There lies a distinct lack of imagination and practicality that colours all of Kathmandu’s urban development plans.

As the virus spreads across Kathmandu, there is a new growing consciousness around city life among its citizens. The unique density of our capital and the haphazard urban planning has inspired active concerns about the potential of having a COVID-19 boom in the city. Though the concern is valid, I can’t help but look at it cynically. Kathmandu has always been a hotbed for disease; cholera and typhoid spread like wildfire among our illegal settlements and low income housing every monsoon season, however, the affluent are only paying closer attention now that there is a disease that their private water source and tall walls can’t keep out.

It’s easy to blame the transmission of the disease on the poor. Many have already done so — “If only the poor could wash their hands, not live in such a dirty house, socially distance, not run back carrying disease, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.” However, the true failure lies higher — in the systemic mismanagement of city resources that is hellbent on creating a city which is unlivable for the poor. We in our misguided desire to “make Kathmandu into the next Singapore, the next Tokyo” have not only wasted the limited resources that we have but actively created even more insidious poverty traps in our capital. The poor in this case are only unwilling agents suffering from decades of poverty alleviation policies that are either indifferent to the poor entirely, or avoidant to their situation.

There is a distinct lack of imagination and practicality that characterizes urban policies of Kathmandu. Our urban policy can be summed up as a desire to imitate modern cities of the Global North — to “make Kathmandu into the next Switzerland.”

These lofty ambitions sound well on paper, but are extremely dangerous because they fail to look at the reality on the ground.

We don’t live in a country with a top 10 HDI score, where absolute poverty rates are near 0. We live in Kathmandu, and it is time that we accept that reality to create policies for Kathmandu of today.

Here is the fact of the matter: Despite only 17.4% of our population living in cities, Kathmandu valley is the fastest growing city in South Asia at 4% every year. In the next 20–30 years, we are going to see unprecedented levels of movement into our cities and towns, completely transforming our urban landscape. Most of these people are low-income migrants from villages; every year, the population in our 63 slums and illegal settlements is expected to grow at 25%. Though data on the quality of lives in these slums are limited, the few surveys that have been conducted finds that “98% of households lived in semi-permanent and temporary accommodation, 15% practiced open defecation and 48% used latrines that discharge directly into a river.”

So, when so many of our people live in such a context, how exactly is the Ring Road Expansion going to turn Kathmandu into Singapore and Tokyo and New York?

Sure, an eight-lane highway cutting across our city might make it easier for our upper class to ride in their air-conditioned cars, but what about the poor? Without expanding our public transport network and making it affordable, the poor are still going to be packed like sardines in our buses that should have retired 20 years ago. And as more middle-class family find our public transport system to be woefully inadequate, the more they will spend on personal transport vehicles like cars and increase congestion all over again. COVID is not the only life-threatening disease in our planet, and its hard to think that conditions like those will not be a health hazard in the future as new and old diseases rise. What will we do then?

These policies like road expansion, slum resettlement, all sound innocuous at first but they are all borne out of a deep indifference for the poor and their lives. For the poor, catching a chronic disease like tuberculosis or asthma which disrupts them from working is a matter of life and death, yet we still produce a public transport system and a city that encourages the spread. At least 46 people have died of tuberculosis every day, most of them being the working class. Far before COVID even came about, the poor of urban Nepal were dealing with a deadlier epidemic, one which has been allowed to flourish due to our unequitable urban planning. What is that motivated by if not a lack of care as to whether the poor live or die?

Policies attempting to tackle urban insecurity that we do have are incredibly misguided. So far, the Nepal Rastra Bank has provided Rs 88 billion worth of investment in low interest housing loans. Though this policy is excellent for middle class, for the poor it’s a debt trap. It’s the policy of avoidance — “oh the poor will take care of themselves somehow” without facing the facts. When you are hungrier than most, the urge to spend is stronger — we are expecting long-term investment of money from people who doesn’t even have enough to eat. Even if we assume that the poor remain hungry to build their house, unless their real wages go up, how will they pay back their loans and the expensive upkeep fee? How will they keep up their jobs that require them to commute to the central district if they are relocated to the edges of the city with a spotty public transportation system?

The aesthetics of a city doesn’t determine its worth. Kathmandu municipality has grand plans to make shiny roads, tall skyscrapers, and big parks because we, the middle class of the country, view it as a mark of development. Most planners and most civilians in Nepal seem to be concerned with “high modernism”, “the belief that an efficient city is one that looks regimented and orderly[1]. Improvement now, has become synonymous with “aesthetic improvement”, which results in planners passing extreme policies like slum evictions. We, the citizens of the Global South, see our city through the lens of the North, through their skyscrapers and experimental designs, and assert that our cities are “lacking the quality of city-ness.[3]” But skyscrapers and parks don’t a city make, it is the people who need to come first. Tokyo and Singapore aren’t the only yardsticks for what a city looks like — we don’t need to have fancy embellishment if out citizens are able to access the bare minimum of their necessity.

We are wasting our limited resources in our bungling attempt to be a city that we are not. Building public housing, sewage canals, or even breaking the transport mafia are not “sexy” goals. They don’t make for fancy photo-ops, but they are essential for the lives of thousands in our cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has finally made the elite of Kathmandu slightly aware of the failures of our cities — I hope that we use some of this awareness to reimagine the future we are planning for our poor.

[1] .Roy, A. (2005). Urban Informality. Toward and Epistemology of Planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 71 (2)

[3] Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International journal of urban and regional research,26(3), 531–554.