Sunday, April 15, 2001

Bagmati ghats in dire need of protection from squatters

By Razen Manandhar

KATHMANDU, April 14 - The historic stone-paved bank of the holy Bagmati river, stretching from Teku to Thapathali continues to be encroached by squatters, polluting the water and damaging the monuments, thanks to lackadaisical metropolitan unit and drying river.

Bagmati is considered the holiest river system of the Kathmandu Valley which brought civilization in the Valley thousands of years ago. Ancient inscriptions state that the Saint Ne, who gave Nepal his name, used to live at the confluence of Bishnumati that meets the Bagmati at Teku.

But right from Teku, just 100-meter from the Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s (KMC) central office, ghats, or steps made with brick-shaped steps to control the river flow and also give space for the pilgrims of the holy river, have been the favourite of squatters.

A three-storey concrete building was made recently right on the 150-year-old ghat behind the Maternity Hospital at Thapathali. It has even barred part of the river with wall and a gate, like it was its private property. An old tree has been chopped off to the root and a vermilion-smeared idol installed next to it.

The regulation to protect the Bagmati states that construction of any building within the distance of 20 meters from the river is illegal.

The owner, Bhim Kumari Shah, who proudly announces that Inspector General of Police Pradip Sumsher Rana is her nephew’s son, claimed that the house has been there for a long time and so it is not illegal. "This is our ancestor’s house and we claim it is legal," she said.

Similarly, a building belonging to Advocate Sundar Lal Chaudhary, next to Bhagbateshwor Ghat is constructed on the river boundary itself. The building’s surrounding wall has covered the stone paved boundary and a small Shiva-Linga is left outside the wall.

Over a hundred make-shift huts have been put up at Banshi Ghat on the dry river bank which not only houses the squatters but also gives shelters to some social organizations, registered in the government, like Nepal Basobas Basti Sanraksyan Samaj at Banshi Ghat and Sahara Sewa Sadan.

Similarly, scores of traditional rest houses or dharmasalas, built by the Rana prime ministers and their families for the people who wished to die by the holy river have been turned into private houses, schools or police residences.

According to article 96 of Local Self-Governance Act 1999, the duty of conserving the rivers cultural heritage falls upon the municipality but KMC has so far not introduced any such programs to safeguard this ghat area from squatters.

"We should immediately make the site free of the squatters," Deputy Mayor of Kathmandu Bidur Mainali said. But he admits that no programs to clear the area have been launched.

Hutaram Baidhya, the 80-year old activist for saving the Bagmati says that only a strong superpower can save the river from the clutches of the squatters.

He says, "Unfortunately, the Bagmati has been a target for all opportunity-seekers who have no sentimental attachment to its the religious and cultural values. This is the only reason behind the continuous deterioration of our beloved river."

He blames the local representatives for this domination of squatters. "They are indirectly protecting this practice, in hope of securing votes in the local election, though at the cost of these heritage sites," he said.

Heritage expert Oj Man Singh Shrestha, presently working on the Bagmati area heritage, said the locals should be aware of this and know who loves Bagmati. "This area should be declared protected monument zone to prevent it from the squatters," he said.

This ghat area houses sixteen major temples, built in pagoda and dome style, in the period between 1812 and 1950 by various rulers, government staff and people in general. In 1996, a study was done to renovate four temples of the ghat, which was never realized. Bend von Droste, the then director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre said then that "the Teku-Thapathali group, on the banks of the Bagmati, has social problems associated with squatters in the surrounding dharmasalas".

The longest stone paved ghat of the country was made by the first Rana Prime Minister Junga Bahadur Rana by 1850, in mourning of the massacre he initiated to take over the power. According to the architects, this is a unique blend of the traditional Newari architecture and the neo-classical Rana architecture.