Nepali Times Asian Paints
A flat life


A billboard advertising an upmarket apartment complex in Kathmandu shows a well-to-do young woman practicing yoga in a garden.

It's an obvious allusion to lifestyle western apartment dwellers enjoy: ambitious recent college grads renting out sleek new units and dabbling in post-modern diets and lifestyles. How realistic is this in a city where the apartment culture is just making its debut in the capital of a country that is one of the poorest in Asia?

Sociologists say that in Kathmandu, apartments more often house middle-aged couples and families rather than young professionals.

Ashish Garg and Sanjay Ladsaria of the pioneering green firm Clean Developers say new apartments are being bought by wealthy families who have moved out of their bungalows. "There are not many young bachelors at all,"
says Garg.

The reason is largely financial. Apartment complexes are often built downtown where land prices are high. Young professionals can't afford to live in these units, although many purchase them as investments and not to live
in them.

Apartments first emerged following World War I in European cities as government-sponsored housing for out-of-town municipality and railway workers. Flat-living brought about a societal shift from community towards individual living.

The private sector, helped by technological advances like the elevator, eventually transformed these dingy dwellings into today's glittering high rises that target a wealthier population. In the subcontinent it has come to be known as the "Gurgaon Effect", after the highrise New Delhi suburb.

Given the frenzy of construction that is currently going on, within four years Kathmandu will have a new skyline of new, tall apartment blocks. And since young bachelors can't afford them, these apartments will serve entire families.

"In Kathmandu, apartments won't bring about a social revolution as they did in Europe, they will preserve old lifestyles in new settings," predicts Prabal Thapa of Prabal Thapa Architects.

New residents have therefore struggled to meet the compromises that apartment-dwelling demands. Having grown accustomed to living in suburban bungalows, many habitually ignore the concerns of their next-door neighbors. Meanwhile, those who have lived with large families in inner city bahals seem to do better with their neighbours, but have a difficult time discarding past habits.

Thapa adds wryly that some families that move into apartments try to conserve so much of their old lifestyles that the only thing they don't bring to their new flats are their chickens and the family cow.

To make matters worse, there aren't many people who can help them cope with this new lifestyle because few in Nepal have experienced life in a modern apartment. Older Nepalis apartments were just a couple flats and rooms, not at all like the chic structures we know today.

Architect Arun Dev Pant of Design Cell says the new imported style has set a high "baseline" that is above what Nepalis are used to. This makes the job of developers doubly hard. Not only do they have to build apartments, they have to educate residents about the social etiquette in these new settings.

Not surprisingly, then, apartment tenants routinely complain about their neighbours. Binod Upadhaya grew so frustrated with his neighbors in his apartment block that he moved back to a house. "The little things were the most annoying," he says, recounting an experience with neighbours who would hang out laundry dripping water onto the balcony below. Garg and Ladsaria remember answering questions from potential residents about the caste of neighbours.

Residents, developers and architects believe the shift from individualism to community-living will take time, but Nepalis will get used to it. Garg says the Joint Apartment Act, which requires that apartment complexes be wholly owned by their residents, will help.

By this act residents are free to manage the apartment complex themselves by forming home owners associations or to surrender that responsibility to the developers.

These associations can achieve wonderful results. Upadhaya says that through them, residents can collectively organise medical and security provisions at very low individual costs. When a community flourishes, residents may also be able to safely leave their children alone or apartments unguarded.

Garg and Ladsaria say the plusses of community-living outweigh its drawbacks and will ease the transition to this new lifestyle. What will help is the tradition of community-living in close quarters among many of Nepal's ethnic groups. Anthropologist Suresh Dhakal of Tribhuban University calls this kind of close cooperation "problem-based solidarity".

The transition to apartment-living could very well be smoother than expected, but the municipality must also fulfil its responsibility of ensuring security, access, utilities, fire and other emergency services. There is also bound to be a surge in legal disputes, and the government needs to step in to enforce the rights of tenants.

Cabin fever - FROM ISSUE #461 (24 JULY 2009 - 30 JULY 2009)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)