Then the Ring Road was completed in 1980 it looked futuristic. It took into account the projected growth in vehicular population and the improbability of heavy traffic running the narrow inner routes. It included a green belt running along its length and a service road for connectivity to settlements flanking the road on either side. The approximately 27-km-long Chinese-built Ring Road was to have a main road 20 m wide, with 15 m green belts on either side, and service tracks of 6 m each. From the centre of the road to either end that's a total of 31 m.
Two decades later, the condition of the Ring Road is an example of how myopia, apathy and a top-down approach to management can ruin a good idea. The Ring Road lies neglected, the green belt has been encroached upon or simply destroyed and the service track is virtually non-existent in places.
Construction of the service track began more than a decade ago when the Panchayat government passed a Bill to the effect and started tearing down all structures that stood on the space required. No compensation was paid to landowners. While a few demanded recompense for houses and buildings torn down, many kept silent as they believed a service track skirting their land would result in a higher real estate value.
For some time after, the construction of the track looked real. Truckloads of gravel, stone and sand were dumped along the area. State-owned television and radio told us that even the houses of big guns had been torn down. But predictably, it was too good to last and all activity ground to a halt. The blame lies with the early planners. They did not assign responsibility to any agency to protect and develop the idea-both Lalitpur and Kathmandu municipalities, and also the Department of Roads simply pass the buck now-and took no initiative to involve communities.
Although the Department of Roads now claims that the plan is back on track, past record indicates that such optimism is misplaced. "Last year, the budget allocated for the service track was diverted to pave roads during the SAF games. This year Rs 7.5 million has been allocated for the construction of the inner track. We are in the process of inviting a tender bid early December," says Indu Dhakal, Kathmandu Divisional Head of the Department of Roads. According to Ananta Poudyal, engineer at the same division, Kathmandu will get Rs 5.5 million and Patan, Rs 2 million.
But it is not clear how and where the work will begin, and many government officials don't even know of the existence of such a fund. Damodar Gautam, chief engineer at Patan municipality, says, "There is no budget to carry out any activity. The central government policy is weak. It is very tough to implement any actions against the will of the local people." He believes local participation is crucial for things to start working.
Theoretically, the process of initiating the project might sound simple, but the ground reality is that encroachment and interference by communities and local clubs around the Ring Road has become too complicated to be solved easily. Dhakal remembers how he was almost burnt alive inside a truck by an angry mob which had gathered to protect illegal settlements at Tinkune which Dhakal, with a small police force, was about to demolish.
"The problem lies within the system. First of all, the government should undertake strict and strategic planning and implement it accordingly. Otherwise the department is in no position to use force except to go about fencing areas with barbed wire," he says. "Everybody talks big during planning meetings and interaction. But at ground level, only a minority of us remain. We can't just go about pulling down houses and disrupting public life," he says.
A decade after the service track was laid, the roads department is unable to open it fully or pave it. There are several houses and workplaces built on the service track, which have inevitably spilt over to the green belt. New settlers, a large part of the migrant population into the valley, have started to squat on this land, even opening small tin-roofed shops and automobile workshops. The worst of this 'reclamation' is at intersections where traffic flow is high. At places like Koteswor, Chabahil, Kalanki Chowk, Balaju and Gongabu, the greenbelt simply does not exist, and any official undertaking to clear the settlements will certainly be met with strong, possibly violent resistance.
At Kalanki, for instance, scrap metal and the remains of vehicle chassis litter the area of the service track. On the other side people sip tea in a tin-roofed shop besides a huge garbage dump. A local club, the Kalanki Chowk Sudhar Samiti even collects a 'tax' from each shop-up to Rs 10 every day. Says a fruit-vendor from Jhapa: "We pay them five rupees per day. In return we get to sell our stuff without any hassle from the traffic and the municipality police."
According to the chairman of the Kalanki committee, Ram Sharan Thapa, the funds are used to do things like pave the area and manage parking space at the Chowk. "These are the responsibilities of the government, but since the situation started getting worse, we decided to run this committee ourselves," he says.
Locals like feeling empowered. Says local resident Roshan Kaji Maharjan, "It's good they are managing things the government is supposed to do. But at the same time, it is very important for the municipality to keep track of the revenue to prevent it from being misused."
The Road Department's solution to encroachment seems to be occasionally bulldozing the small trail roads that connect the service-track to the main road. "But that does not result in any permanent solution to the problem and neither is it healthy," acknowledges engineer Shyam Bikram Khand of the Lalitpur section of the Road Department. Poudyal of the Kathmandu division offers a solution: "Unless the service track is made operational, encroachments will continue."
Further, it is obvious why most houses have their own small trail connecting them to the main street. "Who are we to go and ask house owners to tear down their houses because I need the service track? It's the job of the government and the road department. If they do it I'll take that road. Otherwise why should I make enemies of my neighbours?" says an old man in Kalanki as he walks away, fuming.
Engineer Khand of the Lalitpur Road Department has a different perspective on managing the Ring Road: "It cannot be directly termed encroachment because people using the land there do not claim that the land is theirs. But since they have not been given any other alternative, they simply go about using the space." He says an incomplete understanding of the concept of a service track is causing most of the problem. "The best solution lies in community participation and public awareness whereby people understand what is being done and co-operate instead of protesting against it," he says.
In any case, the Road Department does not have the necessary jurisdiction or the budget to offer compensation for land acquired from the public. They may be criticised for inefficiency and slackness but there are also times when their work disappears overnight. "We do fence the green belt but the wires are gone within a few days," says Dhakal. The same happens to trees they planted.
The roots of the mess lie in the lack of will, clarity and efficiency in the central planning system. The concept will not work unless local authorities are given direction and empowered to act, and the community is involved. Right now, a majority of landowners in these areas seem open to the idea of a service track, compensation or no compensation. It is up to the authorities to seize the day.