It used to be said in rural Nepal that you knew you were approaching a village when human droppings started dotting the trail. Our towns proclaim their presence in even more dramatic ways. Black plastic bags float in the air like balloons, open sewers overflow into pavements, endless queues of dilapidated vehicles honk their heads off, abandoned cows and stray dogs amble along thoroughfares, and aimless groups of people loiter the streets. Welcome to Nepal.
Despite their over-stressed infrastructure and underserved municipal facilities, these cities are growing in all directions. This can only mean more squalour and more nastiness in the future. Economic growth and urbanisation are so closely interlinked that one without the other appears unimaginable. But there have to be better methods of planning, building and managing towns than the free-for-all way in which we run our municipalities now.
Early this week, Nepal Engineers Association organised a workshop to discuss 'Public Private Partnership approach to municipal level infrastructure development and services'. Like most consultations, the event turned out to be largely ritualistic, but participants did succeed in pinpointing the reasons why urban growth in Nepal's towns is unplanned and getting worse.
Like with everything else, the main reason is the absence of effective government in Singha Darbar. The lack of political leadership means that governance everywhere has been at a standstill for over two years now.
Under-motivated, unwilling and mostly unsuitable executive officers head nearly all municipalities. They are mayors, metropolitan councillors and its executive members all rolled into one. Even if such a person is Brahma incarnate, it is impossible for an individual to be the cook, the butler, the cleaner, the janitor and the father of the town all at the same time.
Municipalities have remained headless since the last elections over a decade ago. A fresh mandate from the electorate will only be possible after the new constitution is made, but till then there has to be a new way to demand accountability through an ad-hoc political setup. The fact that Baburam Bhattarai is an urban planning expert and the Maoists may soon lead a new government could be potential good news.
Even though they are glorified as local government units, most municipalities have to survive on doles from the central government. Kathmandu has no money to patch up potholes, Janakpur lacks resources to dispose its garbage safely, and despite hosting the biggest revenue-generating customs office in the country, Birganj doesn't have the budget to upgrade infrastructure on its own.
After the leadership and funds, the third most important factor of urban degeneration is the lack of trained people to run municipalities.
Apprenticeship has its strengths, but it works properly only when it is combined with sound theoretical base and practical training. Tribhuban University does offer a masters in urban planning, but most short-term programs run by donor agencies benefit consultants running the course rather than their trainees.
We will have to learn to build better cities to produce responsible citizens that do not begin to burn tyres, pelt stones and shout slogans at the behest of political paymasters. We have to nurture citizens who are outraged by shoddy services, angry about living under corrupt, incompetent and insensitive governments and demand improvement.