Sunday, June 10, 2001

After eight years, World Heritage Site beckons visitors

[Sundari Chowk]
By Razen Manandhar

LALITPUR, June 8 - A period of eight years is too long for any beautiful heritage site to remain closed for common people and tourists citing renovation works. But not by the standard of Department of Archaeology (DoA), which has closed Sundari Chowk or the Royal Bath, one of the best parts of Patan Durbar Square, a site in the World Heritage List.

The Sundari Chowk or ‘the beautiful courtyard’, constructed in 1627 AD by King Siddhi Narsimha Malla, was used as a bathing place for the Malla kings and their families. At the centre of the courtyard, is a water sprout with a replica of Krishna Mandir. The Chowk is flanked by scores of stone idols of Hindu deities for the kings to pray gods after their bathe. Surrounded by magnificent wood pillars, door and windows and adored by finest woodcarving, the Chowk in itself is a symbol of art and splendour.

Founder president of Tourist Guides Association of Nepal (TURGAN) Dwarika Das Rajbhandari says, without access to the Chowk, visitors are denied of the grandeur view of the Patan Durbar Square. "We ought to show them this historical treasure that we have."

But the tourists have no options but to go through the old pictures in the guide books and wander what a beautiful opportunity it would have been to be in the historic site.

Mandankini Shrestha, Chief of the Durbar Protection Office, a wing of the DoA says that the Chowk is closed for conservation works. According to her, the DoA decided to close the 375-year old courtyard’s door for visitors because it was crumbling down and there was no project to renovate it. She reiterated the same old reason: "We lack budget for such a grand project."

In 1996, DoA and UNESCO jointly carried out a feasibility study for the renovation works, which billed the project cost at 265,800 US dollars.

Besides, she added that lack of security was another reason behind closing down of the courtyard. "The other problem is security. The courtyard has no security staff from army or police for one of the mighty World Heritage Sites," she said.

Mayor of Lalitpur Sub-metropolitan City, Buddhi Raj Bajracharya has been arguing the government to open the courtyard since several years.

"I had asked the DoA , the concerning government body, to open the ancient courtyard for the locals and visiting tourists. I even proposed to spend one or two million rupees to renovate it if necessary, but they refused it," said Bajracharya.

The conservation experts suspect that several artefacts could have been stolen from the World Heritage Site by now. They say there are security lapses since the nearby Ward Police Office was removed from the Durbar Square.

The courtyard was documented in detail in 1993, which lasted for 15 months, with the support of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters. Hariratna Ranjitkar, a conservationist, who was also involved in the project, said that though people were not allowed to climb upstairs then, the courtyard was okay and people came and went freely there.

"We worked as per the project and left it open. But after the completion of the project the courtyard was closed. I see no reason why the tourists and local people should be prevented from visiting such a beautiful place", he says.

Rajbhandari also thinks that the Chowk should be opened for tourists since they pay Rs 200 as entrance fee to enter the Patan Durbar Square.

Friday, June 01, 2001

Squatters not necessarily be landless

By Razen Manandhar

The credit of "success" of the unprecedented three-day bandh, called by the alliance of six left parties goes to the city squatters. Regardless of the organising parties and their motives, they come out enmass, where local people’s participation is scanty, to destroy the public and private property indiscriminately.

Development of a city, everywhere in the world, draws more and more people from surrounding city and even from the neighbouring countries. This extra numbers of immigrant population is not only a decoration but also a prerequisite to turn any settlement into a city. Growing urban population is an indicator of the people eager to earn more, which in turn makes the governments’ revenue and vote base broader.

Broadly speaking, Kathmandu Valley migrants, who squat upon public land without the permission of the local authorities during and after the Panchayati era, have a special identity. They presume all vacant public land as their own and it is within their rights to live there undisturbed.

They also enjoy all the advantage of being "citizens" but never pay back their dues. They are the squatters, the landless people or rural poor of different genre.

In a city one has to pay for everything. And, city life generally means expensive life. But, these hordes of people neither buy land nor pay rent. Why should they? If the local authority allows them to squat upon the entire public land, why spend money for room or a flat.

Now, the squatters themselves admit that there are around 1700 people living on public land. The real number can be double the figure because of the continuously growing encroachment. It is not a surprising sight to see scores of new hut mushroom overnight along the riverbanks.

For the local authorities they are heaven sent gifts. For them, the more the squatters the more chances of winning the next local election, be it at the cost of the planned development of a city. That is why such illegal settlements are seldom controlled or evicted. Rather, they work hard to issue them with voter’s list and sell dreams of providing land ownership certificates before each elections. Come election time, they even lend helping hands to provide them water and drainage facilities.

It is strange that no ministry, department or section has any jurisdiction over the thousands of wrongdoers. There is the Squatters’ Problem Solution Commission but the district where it has the office is not within its concern.

The municipalities often turn blind eyes to this sore sight of the city. The Kathmandu Mayor went to distribute "certificates" to the squatters living in permanent houses near Balaju. And Lalitpur Mayor persists that there are no squatters in his municipality so it is not necessary to devise any plan against them.

In that context it is not surprising that the squatters are now organised and they even threaten to protest over any urban planning along the riverbanks, conservation of river and riverside monuments or about the responsibilities of the citizens.

Most of those who called themselves landless are well-off people. The squatters’ organisation admits that many of the squatters have land in the village and have occupied several "plots" in the city. They earn enough for their family and have no bread and butter problem. They are employed in teaching, business, tailoring, running teashops, army or soldiers or other professions. They have their own co-operative company with millions of rupees that gives loans to women for small-scale business too.

Apart from that, the possibility of the squatters being involved in pick pocketing, prostitution, smuggling and other criminal activities cannot be overruled. Since they are not affiliated with the culture of the city dwellers, they are free to live, as they want.

Thanks to the foreign donations and some non-government organisations for helping them to develop their living standard. This is a big incentive for the newcomers — everything is ready for them. So why not some more squatters?

The strange aspect among squatters is that they do not want to live in some planned settlement in the periphery. They want to stay in the core city area and that too at free of cost. Democracy has given one right to all — be united and demand for anything, be it unreasonable.

We have to see how long the local representatives keep on caressing the city’s tumour in hope of winning next election at the cost the city’s structure, social and cultural values.
[Kathmandu Friday June 01, 2001 Jestha 19, 2058.]