Nepali Times
A Bagmati park

BEFORE AND AFTER: The Bagmati in the 1950s (above) flowed clean and wide at the Thapathali bridge, today (below) its polluted water flows down a canyon carved by sand extraction.

If you've noticed unexpected tinges of green along the Bagmati river lately, then you have the UN Park Development Committee, which has made a cleaner and greener Bagmati its mission, to thank.

The committee put together a master plan in 1996, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, with an approved budget of Rs 350 million and five years to complete the project. Eight years later, with only Rs 50 million released from the Ministry of Housing and Physical Planning, the committee is just starting work. It aims to enclose the stretch of former flood plain from Jwagal to Kupondole, but so far only about a kilometer of compound wall has been put up. But for the team at the Babar Mahal office, even this is a great achievement.

"The land was being encroached on illegally. No one can claim the riverbank as private property, we have saved land worth over Rs 5 billion," boasts section officer, Sagar Rijal.

Executive director at the project office, Ramesh Jang Rayamajhi, is a bit more cautious, admitting there are still some misunderstandings over the land, but says he has approached the squatters hoping that they'll understand. "I've told them we realise they want to grow their food there, but appealed to them that if they hand over the land, it'll benefit everyone," he says.

The park master plan includes designs for a children's park, squash and tennis courts, bike trail, a mini Nepal with traditional villages, parking facilities, two suspension bridges and more.

Recently, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), concerned that the birds' habitat was being destroyed, requested the park office for some land to plant fruiting and flowering trees. Rayamajhi happily welcomed BCN on the condition that they also put in a bike trail and the children's park. The Rotary Club of Tripureswor has agreed to clean up and maintain the area under the Bagmati Bridge on the Kathmandu side.

Not everyone agrees with the plan for a park. Bagmati conservationist Huta Ram Baidya says, "The Bagmati basin river system needs protection to flow along the traditional route. You can't constrict it by building parks. One day the river will take its revenge."

One of the Bagmati's many other afflictions include the uncontrolled removal of sand for construction. Over the years, sand removal has caused the river to scour a canyon in Thapathali where it used to flow along its entire width. "Has anyone ever thought the river might need more space to flow?" Baidya asks. On average, the Bagmati has a large flood once in every five years, but Baidya says this isn't the real worry. A bigger concern is the one that comes around every 50 years.

Despite all this, the park project is upbeat. The park is an ambitious plan that has been riddled with many challenges, admits Rayamajhi. But for now he's focusing efforts on creating a greenbelt and is confident that as more of the budget is handed over the project will develop. (Sraddha Basnyat)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)