21-27 April 2017 #855

Righting reconstruction gone wrong

Kathmandu’s youth have taken the lead in lobbying for more sensitive restoration of heritage sites destroyed in the 2015 earthquake
Alok Tuladhar

Even before the earthquake, Kathmandu Valley’s temples, heritage sites and monuments were being degraded by urban pressure. Two years ago, on 25 April 2015, the Valley suffered its worst loss of cultural heritage since the 1934 earthquake. The government said it would need at least $169 million to rebuild.

The traditional architectural style and the urban space of the Valley are integral to the ethnic and cultural identity of its people, and the damage caused by the earthquake have further weakened links to community centres and rituals. The physical destruction of the monuments translate into a loss of the Valley’s intangible heritage. Traditional festivals and rituals have suffered because of a decrease in financial support from communities and the government.

The Post-Disaster Recovery Framework (PDRF) in 2015 planned to completely restore affected cultural heritage in six years. The Department of Archaeology (DoA) was designated the main custodian in planning, managing and supervising the rebuilding and restoration process.

However, the ground reality two years hence is that the DoA is not following the Framework guidelines. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) has approved reconstruction and renovation of nearly 70 cultural heritage sites and monuments so far, half of which are in various stages of implementation. But most DoA-funded renovation and reconstruction, especially the larger projects, are being criticised by conservationists, culture experts, local communities and the public.

The reconstruction contracts were given to commercial companies that submitted the lowest bids, even if they had no prior experience in heritage restoration. The DoA’s lame justification is that government procurement rules did not allow them to implement the contracts in any other way. Research, quality control, local community participation and intangible cultural heritage practices were non-existent during reconstruction. In some cases, like the 17th-century Rani Pokhari and pre-Licchavi Tundal Devi, concrete and steel were used to replace traditional materials.

Pics: Gopen rai

In response, spontaneous, informal groups have sprung up across Kathmandu Valley to lobby the government to treat heritage reconstruction with sensitivity. These youth-led groups have used social and mainstream media campaigns, public meetings, petitions and started small-scale reconstruction with community funding. Good examples are the restoration of the Licchavi-era Ashoka Chaitya in Thamel and the youth initiative on restoring Nepal’s oldest public monument, Kasthamandap, which was destroyed in the quake.

As a result of public outrage and national media attention, the government is under pressure to introduce bylaws or modify existing laws to find a viable alternative to the lowest-bidder system. There are indications that community demands for greater public participation and transparency in heritage recovery will be incorporated in the government's new implementation mechanism.

The youth-led initiative has been instrumental in raising public awareness about heritage issues. It has lobbied with elected Members of Parliament and influential political leaders as well as the UNESCO office in Nepal. The Cabinet is expected to soon direct the NRA to abolish or amend the current inappropriate mechanisms in heritage reconstruction.

Although the public activism is encouraging, there is much uncertainty about how the political elite and senior bureaucrats will react. There is still a possibility that the government will ignore the pressure to adjust prevailing procurement mechanisms. The youth movement is not yet insitutionalised and without clear and strong leadership could fizzle out.

Kathmandu Valley’s communities have built, maintained and rebuilt historic buildings after every earthquake. We can do the same now provided the government plays an enabling role by providing guidelines and technical supervision, and lets experts handle restoration.  

Alok Tuladhar is member of the community-based Rebuild Kasthamandap team. alokstuladhar@gmail.com

Read Also:

Untie the knot, Kanak Mani Dixit

Preserving the intangible, Chandani KC

Resurrecting Kasthamandap, Sarthak Mani Sharma

By locals, for locals, Monalisa Maharjan