There has been a lot of media coverage on the proposed Outer Ring Road in Kathmandu Valley, including this paper ('Road to nowhere', #223). Real estate speculators seem most excited and land prices in the Valley have soared ever since an MoU was signed in July during Crown Prince Paras' visit to Beijing.
Studies have shown that the Valley's population will grow from its present 1.6 million to 2.5 million by 2020, although this figure may have to be revised upwards due to internal displacement by the insurgency. Although 300,000 people can be accommodated by densification in the core urban areas within the existing Ring Road, some farmland has to be encroached upon to settle an additional 600,000 people.
Although media often portrays Kathmandu as a 'crowded' city, its density of 100 people per hectare is worryingly low. The optimum density of a medium-size city like Kathmandu should be at least double that. Low density means a city tends to spread uncontrollably outwards before the city core is properly developed. Streamlining urban management would discourage haphazard growth of radial roads which would be environmentally destructive and enhance the vitality of the Kathmandu Valley: its heritage, scenic location, salubrious climate and tourist attractions.
The government has endorsed a Long Term Development Plan after hearings involving politicians, planners, business and professional organisations which will develop the Valley as a National Capital Region based on self-governance by local authorities under an apex body called the Kathmandu Valley Urban Development Council. A draft bill has been prepared to provide legal backing to the Council which will be made up of the chiefs of local authorities and representatives of line ministries.
The Plan has proposed that green and built-up areas be maintained at a 60:40 ratio by the densification of existing municipal areas, planned urban expansion beyond the municipal boundary and development of traditional compact settlements like Khokana, Bungmati, Lubhu, Sankhu, Bode and Tokha. It envisages the delineation of a rural-urban boundary and conservation of rivers and watershed areas.
Many ask: is an Outer Ring Road a priority? Improvement of existing city streets, 14 radial roads and the completion of the Inner Ring Road including the Bishnumati, Bagmati and Dhobikhola corridors are more urgent because they would reduce traffic congestion in Kathmandu and Lalitpur.
True, and these activities should also be implemented. But there is a rationale for the Outer Ring Road which has more to do with integrating infrastructure development than just building a road. The Melamchi water supply project will bring snowmelt to Sundarijal through a 27 km tunnel which needs to be distributed to different areas of the Valley. It would be cheaper to construct a road and lay pipes along its alignment .The road will also help in the construction of the large reservoirs to be built in eight locations of the Valley.
High voltage transmission lines can also follow the road, as can other utilities like telephone and telecommunication. The Outer Ring Road could also serve as a bypass highway for Greater Kathmandu once the Bardibas-Banepa highway is completed. The Outer Ring Road would also help in delineating the rural-urban boundary as envisaged by the Long Term Plan and open up new areas for planned development.
The Department of Roads has done a feasibility study of the alignment of the Outer Ring Road, taking into account topography, geology, ecology, heritage sites, urban planning and future infrastructure such as Melamchi and electric transmission lines.
Since the resources are very limited, rational judgment should override populist decisions. If the proposed alignment does not incorporate future infrastructure and utilities, it will be very costly. Utmost care shall be taken to conserve fertile agricultural land and environmentally sensitive areas.
Politics will inevitably become a factor and there is already a move to expand the alignment so it will go through the ecologically sensitive foothills which are the Valley's watershed. We should be very clear: the Outer Ring Road is for planned urban expansion of the city rather than rural development. The settlements in the foothills will benefit from improvements in the existing radial roads rather than the Outer Ring Road.
The Outer Ring Road should not just be a road. If it is conceptualised as an infrastructure development project, it will guide the planned urban development of Kathmandu Valley and benefit the present and future generation. The DoR alignment is a road 66 km long, 50m wide for a six-lane highway with a bicycle track and sidewalk. Sufficient landscaping will be done to maintain greenery within the right of way. There will be 22 bridges with a 120 m span across the Bagmati at Chobar.
Chinese assistance will be available for road construction with the government responsible for the estimated Rs 3 billion land acquisition. But if the concept of 'land pooling' is used, this cost could come down considerably. Landowners will be compensated for land lost by the value-added to existing property by the road. Land pooling will also facilitate infrastructure development of 250m on either side of the road. Buildings falling on the right of the way of the road will be compensated according to the current market rate. Special resettlement policies will be formulated to address the issue of socially disadvantaged people affected by the project. Land pooling is not a new concept and despite being time-consuming, has worked well wherever it was implemented in the Valley.
National-level politics may dominate the discourse in Kathmandu, but its 12 MPs have always been elected on the basis of their influence in the city's outskirts. As long as we keep politics out of it and alignment and other decisions are taken rationally, there is no reason why the Outer Ring Road can't be a political visionary, socially and environmentally sustainable and technically sound project for the future development of Kathmandu Valley.
Kishore Thapa is the Director of Outer Ring Road Land Development Project.