Nepali Times
Southasia Beat
An aloof Valley


Kathmandu Valley, by now largely urbanised, lives in detachment from the rest of the country. Since the royal takeover of February First, the countryside has seen blockades by the Maoists but the capital pretends hard not to notice.

Whole regions have been locked up, transportation is a memory, supplies have dried up, industries are closed, vegetables and milk can't make it to market. People walk like in the old days, in some places trek 100 km from the Indian border to reach home. Else-where, people are hunkered down without news. Either the press and FM radio stations are shuttered or the transportation is not there to bring the papers.

But the word so far in Kathmandu Valley's supermarket checkouts and cafes is that things are fine, the buses are running. Only inside the Ring Road, but that is all that matters. When perishables disappear and gas stations and LPG depots run dry, the fickle middle class will decide things have indeed got serious. But that will not be because of any sensitivity for the national population.

This disconnect of the capital Valley from the rest of Nepal has been part of a process that is about three decades old but now the separation seems complete. There used to be a time when other than local Kathmandu residents, everyone else laid claim to origins from one district or another. The standard greetings used to be to ask the acquaintance's point of origin, "Tapainko tham kahan?" The question has evaporated together with Kathmandu's links to the hinterland.

Walk up any of the hills that encircle this Valley in the early morning, and you can look out across the expanse of the clear blue midhills and the Himalayan snows. The Valley below is socked in and invisible under a lethal haze, its million plus inhabitants breathing a brew of diesel fumes, brick kiln and cremation pyre smoke. The pollution comes as part of Kathmandu's unplanned, dangerous expansion but the rest of the country out there is as bright and clear as it is innocent and exploited.

Kathmandu's voracious appetite wants everything for itself to the exclusion of the districts that house 23 million Nepalis. The services are all concentrated here and now the Valley suddenly wants a second 'outer ring road'. The Valley is mandated a two-day weekend while the rest of the country has just Saturday off. Kathmandu also wants to be a sanctuary by itself, and so more than half of the country's security forces are concentrated here.

This all-pervading Kathmandu-centricism has played a role in distorting the national political process and even derailing democratic evolution. The Valley's middle and upper classes have for years denigrated the political parties as well as the parliamentary practice that they embody. Only now is it becoming clear why the political parties were detested to such a degree, far out of proportion to the sins they did commit. For the first time in 250 years, political power was being distributed outside the Valley and this proved unacceptable to Kathmandu Valley's designated classes.

Capital egocentricism is seen around Southasia, in Dhaka, New Delhi and Islamabad. But Kathmandu stands out because Nepal remains a one-city country. The Valley has the power and it will take the first bite out of the public exchequer and donor largesse. There was a hope that the rampant and unplanned urban expansion would at least be controlled naturally by a lack of water supply. But trust Kathmandu's planners and politicians to propose a $ 120 million project to bring the most expensive water ever to feed the Valley's future thirst and expansion.

And now, when the rest of the country is socked in and brutalised by Maoist insurgents, the Valley's comfortable classes continue with their ability to disfigure priorities and derail political evolution. We still think the country is doing all right by February First because for us the country is the Valley.

As and when a new Nepal does evolve that is democratic, inclusive and empathetic, its touchstone will be whether it serves all Nepalis or coddles the population of this unreflective, disdainful place.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)