One need not go far to see how local participation and able leadership can do wonders. In just a few years, the scenic town of Dhulikhel has become a health, education and tourism centre befitting its status as the district headquarters of Kavrepalanchok.
"We had a clear vision on how to develop Dhulikhel. We wanted basic infrastructure like water, health and educational facilities in place, and we wanted the people to lead these projects," says Bel Prasad Shrestha, the former mayor of Dhulikhel.
Today, Dhulikhel is home to the country's finest university, a state-of-the-art community hospital, and a consumer-managed drinking water system, all built through initiatives from the local community.
The founders of Kathmandu University had failed to find a location until they were invited to Dhulikhel to build the campus. The municipality quickly recognised its potential and agreed to donate 200 ropanies of land, and make arrangements for road, electricity and water within three years. Although the municipality had an annual budget of only Rs 2 million, Shrestha, who was mayor then, motivated local businessmen to chip in with some land and money.
Dhulikhel is also home to the country's first community hospital. Established in 1996, Dhulikhel Hospital is one of the best equipped in the country, but that hasn't stopped it from being accessible to the poor. It provides quality health services at one of the cheapest rates in Nepal and is the only one to treat patients before charging them, though most patients are treated for free. The hospital runs outreach centres at 17 locations¬† in surrounding districts, and is also a teaching hospital for the students of Kathmandu University Medical School.
"Everyone should have access to quality healthcare whether or not they can afford it," says Dr Ram Kantha Shrestha, the hospital's founder. "Just because it is a hospital for the poor doesn't mean it should be badly maintained, or that we should compromise on the quality of services." The success of this model is apparent, for there are 200 community hospitals in Nepal now.
There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the decision to elevate Dhulikhel to the status of a municipality provoked such outrage in neighbouring Banepa that it blockaded the up and coming town. Today, Dhulikhel Municipality has proved wholly deserving of the designation. It has been estimated that Nepal's urban population, at 10 per cent in 1991, will reach 32 per cent by 2027. If towns across the country ‚Ä" and indeed the capital ‚Ä" can draw on the lessons of Dhulikhel, they will secure their future for themselves.
Leading the charge
Everyone in Dhulikhel would agree that the changes in town would not have been possible without the charismatic leadership of Bel Prasad Shrestha. The three-time mayor of Dhulikhel was the first in town to open a lodge for tourists and the first to build a public toilet. His success in bringing water to the town made him highly popular and the people showed their support by electing him for three consecutive terms.
Bel Prasad, however, thinks otherwise. "Dhulikhel has succeeded where other places have failed because everything that we did here was a people's project. If we had waited for the government, Dhulikhel would still be the same nondescript town it was along the Arniko highway."
The sense of community is strong in this Newari town. Many of its people have gone as far as Sikkim and Assam to do business, but value their roots in Dhulikhel. Schools, temples and roads have been built with their remittances. Dr Ram Kantha Shrestha, for instance, left his well-paying job in Austria to open a hospital for the poor back home. Having started with no more than two doctors and four rooms, Dhulikhel Hospital has already served 2.6 million people and conducts 10,000 surgeries and 500,000 treatments a year.
The road to progress
Banepa Bardibas highway, which is nearing completion, will open up a range of possibilities for Dhulikhel. Once the highway is completed, Dhulikhel will be the main entry point to eastern Nepal, and may soon develop into an economic hub. The Suryabinayak-Tinkune highway will mean that Dhulikhel will be accessible from the centre of Kathmandu in 45 minutes. But does this mean that this model town will fall prey to unplanned urbanisation?
"It does not have to be that way," says the Chief of the Planning Section in Dhulikhel Municipality, Jaisi Mandal. He says tourism will remain their main priority and the current policy of banning industries that pollute the town will continue even after the roads are opened.
As a centre for tourism, Dhulikhel has always understood the importance of maintaining a clean environment. The municipality disposes of solid waste in a dumping site after separating recyclable waste, and sewage is treated in a reed bed treatment plant before it flows back into the rivers.
These practices are adequate for a population of 15,000 but some fear that the pressure will be too high once the town starts growing.
"Efforts are already underway to prepare Dhulikhel for the population rise that will accompany the completion of the roads," says Prakash Aryal, Project Manager of the Urban Environmental Improvement Project. A land pooling project will build a planned settlement for more than 5,000 people.
Former mayor Bel Prasad Shrestha believes that there is no alternative to expanding the town. "A greater municipality should be formed by merging Panauti, Banepa, Dhulikhel and the surrounding villages. The municipality should then be developed in a planned way with separate sections for residential, tourism and industrial purposes. Let that be a model for planned development in Nepal," he says.
Mountains and more
PICS: PARASH SHRESTHA
After a brief hiatus during the war, tourism is booming in Dhulikhel. Tourists throng its hotels for mountain vistas that are among the best in the world. Twenty mountain peaks from Annapurna in the west to Karolung in the east grace the spectacular skyline of Dhulikhel. A breathtaking mountain sunrise can be viewed from the Kali Temple, southeast of the town.
Short hikes can be taken from Dhulikhel to Namobuddha, Panauti, Nagarkot, Sankhu and Palanchowk Bhagwati. Most hotels also provide excursions to Tatopani and rafting trips on the Bhotekoshi.
The old town of Dhulikhel is a visual treat in itself. The cobbled streets of Dhulikhel are lined with Newari-style houses, some of which are more than a hundred years old. At 1,500 metres above sea level, the climate is pleasantly cool and the lush green hills make for pleasant walks and great mountain biking trails.
¬†In the past few years, Dhulikhel has also developed as a centre for conference tourism. "Hotels in Dhulikhel always have one conference or meeting taking place at all times," says former mayor Bel Prasad Shrestha, who is also the owner of Hotel Himalayan Horizon and Dhulikhel Lodge. Mid to high-end accommodation is available in the 24 hotels in Dhulikhel.