From here on, Nepal’s challenges are many. Among them, checking its uncontrolled urban sprawl and getting tourism back on its feet. Rakesh Sinha & Yubaraj Ghimire report
At Dharmashringa, home to the Nepal Vipassana Centre 12 km north of Kathmandu, Dr Roop Jyoti, a former minister in King Gyanendra’s government, was wrapping up a 10-day course. Lunch had just got over and they were all chatting. “Then the earthquake struck. It was like nothing anyone of us had seen in our life ime…very strong, very long, it went on and on.”
Jyoti rushed home. His family was safe, his property intact. But the city had been devastated.
Power supply was restored on Day 4 and he switched on his computer to update friends: “The earthquake has caused severe destruction and disruption. Most people spend nights in the open, outside their houses… They are really scared… Hardly anyone is reporting for work.”
This is a catastrophe which has and will affect all in Nepal, small and big. For some, it is both personal and physical loss but for many it is going to be a hard-to-surmount economic loss. This situation has the potential to shake up the basic foundation of the country both social and economic, if not handled properly.”
Day 5, Jyoti’s updates continued: “Nepal will definitely receive a lot of donations and aid but my worry is how that will be used, given the inefficiencies prevailing in the system and in governance. Corruption/greed could raise its head even at such a time.”
A businessman and economist who studied chemical engineering in IIT Bombay before obtaining a doctorate from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, Jyoti goes on that Nepal’s real test starts next.
“Right now, it is only firefighting. Once this is over, one has to take stock of the physical damage, the economic loss and the psychological impact. It is going to be quite a formidable job but not unmanageable. The Birgunj-Biratnagar industrial belt has not been affected and a likely tourism slowdown will be temporary.”
The government has to plan long-term, provide short-term assistance to people because buying power will decline. The real estate sector could be hit because so many highrise apartments have been built and sold. Now, people will worry about moving into highrises.”
Nepal, he says, has “never suffered from lack of financial resources as much as non-utilisation of money”.
Ominous, prophetic warning
At the bus park in Gongabu, where an unspecified number perished as the quake felled building after building, 18-year-old Bina watched a Chinese rescue team trying to reach a man buried in the rubble of his own guest house. She had not been to her third-floor room in a brick-and-mortar building down the road for the last four days. “What if it falls?”
The very next day, the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction called a meeting to assess damage to physical infrastructure in the city. Teams are being formed to inspect buildings and report whether these are fit for habitation.
Bina’s Gongabu is an urban mess in a city expanding rapidly — the 2011 count for Kathmandu Metropolitan City put the population at a little over 1 million. The Valley count is now estimated to be over 2.5 million.
In April 2013, the World Bank came out with an ominously prophetic report headlined ‘Managing Nepal’s Urban Transition’: “One critical challenge is haphazard and uncontrolled growth of built-up areas. Because they are classified as rural areas in spite of their urban characteristics, several market and border towns are growing ‘under the radar’ without government planning and control. Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability. It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world,” the report warned.
On April 25, much of this “uncontrolled sprawl” took a knocking across the Valley.
Like Bina, many in Kathmandu refuse to return indoors, opting to sleep in the open in Tudikhel, the large ground in the heart of the city, or at one of the 15 other designated open shelters.
Others like Jyoti’s relatives have been living in cars parked on the grounds, away from buildings in sight. Some have moved out reluctantly, forced by the stench from rotting garbage, overflowing mobile toilets.
Everyone’s unsure. Taxis drive on the wrong side of the road and if you ask why, the reply is short, terse: “Do you want to be buried?”
A former town planner blames the fear factor on the connivance of officials with fly-by-night developers who bent building rules. He maintains “urbanisation is not bad because it can fuel economic growth”.
He read out from the same World Bank report: “Lack of economic stimuli combined with the insecure political situation has resulted in a massive exodus of the Nepalese productive workforce from the country, and Nepal’s growth is becoming increasingly reliant on highly volatile external remittance flows, rather than internal competitiveness.”
When the soul is lost
Nepal’s sense of loss can also be gauged from the crowds milling around the stump of the iconic Dharahara tower built in 1825 by Bhimsen Thapa, the first prime minister. It was destroyed in the powerful 1934 earthquake and was rebuilt two years later by then prime minister, Juddha Samsher Jung Bahadur Rana. From the top of the 203-feet tower, one could see all of Kathmandu. Three ancient cities — Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur — ruled by the Malla kings from the 12th to the 18th century now make the Valley home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
At the Durbar Square, the Kashtamandap, said to have been built out of a single tree to give Kathmandu its name, was reduced to rubble on April 25. Soldiers clearing the debris maintain it buried at least 44 people when it collapsed.
Much of Durbar Square, a must-see for all visitors, now lies in ruins. In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala pledged to restore heritage monuments destroyed in the quake.
For now, Nepal’s tourism, which counts heavily on visitors to its heritage sites and treks to the Himalayan peaks, is trying to come to terms with what has happened and will follow.
The levelling of these sites will hurt many whose only livelihood has been tourism. Two years ago, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which brings out reports and forecasts the sector’s impact in 184 countries and 24 geographic and economic regions, estimated that the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Nepal’s gross domestic product or GDP would be 75.6 billion Nepalese rupees in 2014.
“This primarily reflects the economic activity generated by industries such as hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transportation services (excluding commuter services). But it also includes, for example, the activities of the restaurant and leisure industries directly supported by tourists,” the WTTC said.
More than half a million people are employed in travel, tourism and related sectors. This number, the WTTC said, was to climb to 762,000 jobs directly by 2024. Until last year, Nepal was expecting 861,000 tourists. But now, this may go horribly wrong.