Rampant real estate development, or plotting, has left giant craters at the base of Mt. Shivapuri, threatening the local ecology and the valley's river network.
The plotting is taking place very close to Shivapuri National Park, which it could damage as it raises the risk of landslides at higher altitudes. "We're very much aware of the problem, but there's little that we can do as the plotting is occuring outside the park boundaries, so is not within our jurisdiction," says Megh Bahadur Pandey of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.
The story is the same at other locations on the periphery of the valley floor. If left unchecked, the trend could cause huge environmental problems, like the disruption of river networks and large scale soil erosion, to name a few. "At the rate at which we are disturbing the natural system, we're simply asking for trouble. The damage caused by the heavy soil movement could be disastrous. It's a pity, as the Kathmandu Valley used to be among the most beautiful in the world," says urban planner Bharat Sharma.
The problem isn't plotting per se but its haphazard growth, which is a result of grossly inadequate regulation. Shockingly, there are no land zoning regulations that dictate what can be built where. Such regulations are commonplace in most other parts of the world. "Besides some old, inner city areas, you can build buildings and develop plots anywhere you wish. There are no land zoning policies, but they are in the works," says Keshab Neupane, spokesperson of the Urban Development Committee, which is in the Ministry of Physical Planning and Works.
What regulations do exist are meagre. Real estate developers are first issued a building permit from either the district project implementation committee, if they plan to develop less than 50 ropanis (1.67 hectares) of land, or the urban development committee in Kathmandu, if they plan to develop more than 50 ropanis or any residential areas. At least three per cent of the area in residential developments must be open, and the roads must be at least four metres wide. Kathmandu district alone has issued 102 permits to housing companies. The Urban Development Committee has itself completed 12 projects in the service of organised urbanisation, and has pooled 305 ropanis (just over 10 hectares) of land for the purpose.
There are also few laws that govern real estate transactions, leaving the door wide open for swindling brokers, who often take commissions from both buyers and sellers. Additionally, the fact that developers tend to pool land purchased from locals (often farmers) makes government intervention difficult. "Developers will buy land from locals and begin construction without first developing infrastructure. If we intervene, they go to court saying we have violated their civil freedoms, and they usually win the case," says Shiva Hari Sharma, deputy director of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC). The DUDBC has drafted a real estate act that would resolve such problems, but this has been stuck in parliament for the last two years.
In the absence of effective real estate regulation, a solution must be sought elsewhere. Initiatives to tighten regulation in the banking sector have done well to reduce real estate investment. By the beginning of the current fiscal year, banks had invested close to a quarter of their portfolios in the real estate sector. "Ever since the Nepal Rastra Bank and Finance Minister Surendra Pandey began to tighten financial regulations in December, land transactions have ground to a halt. Ninety per cent of new property hasn't been sold." says broker Keshab Simkhada.
Financial regulations may slow the growth of urban sprawl, but they won't bring order to it. If we want Kathmandu to retain some of its charm and environmental integrity, that is no alternative to a concerted effort by land use regulators to get their act together.