Sunday, May 02, 2004

Government mulls narrowing down heritage sites

Razen Manandhar

Kathmandu, May 1 (2004):

While heritage experts are clamouring that the government retain the
world title of World Heritage List for Kathmandu Valley, the
government itself is working secretly to narrow down monument zones
in the name of saving the title.

Government officials have come up with a strange proposal
to "safeguard" the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO List of World Heritage in
Danger - self-delist problem-prone areas and only keep the monuments

The Department of Archaeology (DoA) held a seminar last week attended
by selected participants, which busied itself with narrowing down the
monument zones. It proposed to delist all traditional settings of the
residential Newari houses around the historic palaces of Kathmandu,
Patan and Bhaktapur. The proposal also confined it to the temples of
Pashupatinath and Changu Narayan. It proposed naming only the stupas
of Swayambhu and Boudha as monument zones, and not their
surroundings. In any case, these surroundings have been either
deliberately destroyed or are crowded with hundreds of concrete
Tibetan monasteries and walls. The seminar itself evoked differences
of opinion, participants revealed.

DoA officials refused to comment on the proposal but said that it was
a part of the seminar. It is expected that the officials will
formally present the proposal of the narrowed down zones to UNESCO
delegates at the international seminar taking place next week.

The World Heritage Committee, the UNESCO body which lists all the
World Heritage Sites of the world, has nudged the government
repeatedly over the deterioration of monument zones. The
international missions found little or no improvement during their
visits. Ultimately, on June 30, 2003, the Valley was put ultimately
in the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The UNESCO document
stated, "The Kathmandu valley zones witnessed uncontrolled urban
development around thereby affecting the traditional heritage, the
landscape and the architectural fabric of the properties."

Keshav Raj Jha, former ambassador to France and representative to
UNESCO, told this daily, "The proposal surprised me. I must say it is
foolish and ridiculous." Jha added it was a case of killing one son
among seven just because he was not doing well, for the sake of
social status. "International convention does not allow it. If it
happens, the World Heritage sites will get confined to a bedroom or a
small temple," he said.

Prof Jiv Raj Pokhrel, heritage expert and president of the Nepal
Engineers' Association, said the government ought to extend the sites
in order to prove to the world that Nepal possesses unparalleled
cultural heritage. "Instead, efforts are being made to minimise it.
We should at least keep the inscribed sites, if we cannot expand
their scope," he said.

Om Chanran Amatya, chairman of Bhaktapur Heritage Groups, said
concrete houses around monument zones had mushroomed around the
zones, probably as a result of bribe-taking by government officials
or municipal bodies.

"It is a dishonour to our heritage," Amatya added.

Not convincing The government's new proposal to narrow down monument
zones in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site � a conglomeration
of seven UNESCO-identified monument zones � has been perceived as an
idea leading to gradual phasing out of the monuments of lesser
opulence but which in fact are recognised by the Western world as the
unique fabric of Nepali culture. It is understandable that the latest
step based on the "zoom-out approach" to concentrate conservation
efforts on any specific monument of international repute within a
zone might as well have been prompted by fund constraints, among
others. But that such a drastic and narrow approach should be adopted
to preserve the Sites � each one often described by experts as an
open museum � especially in the aftermath of the Kathmandu Valley
World Heritage Site being inscribed in the List of World Heritage in
Danger last July, bodes ill for the country's conservation endeavours.

Any heritage site, not to mention Kathmandu Valley, comprises a range
of other components such as its people and their culture, art,
architecture and life style. Take away any one of these and the
mosaic becomes that much more incomplete. Similarly, to ignore the
minor edifices, as the plan appears to have envisaged, which have
served as eloquent expressions of Nepali heritage, is but to render
the landscape of Nepali heritage picture a bit more fuzzy. It is true
that redefining the borders of these monument zones would no doubt
make the task of preserving them better. But the Kathmandu Valley
Preservation Trust and other agencies concerned should not be too
inflexible in their approach while delimiting the borders. This will
offer an excuse to undesirable elements in and around the Sites to
poach on the tangible as well as intangible cultural values embodied
in them.

If, for example, the proposal to delist traditional settings of the
residential Newari houses around the historic palaces of Kathmandu,
Patan and Bhaktapur is true, it is hard to conceive how this will
contribute to the conservation of the core heritage monuments. To
some extent, the peripheral structures have been acting as buffer
zones, as a protective shield until now. With the collateral edifices
about to be delisted, it is hard to visualise how a sustainable
action plan involving different stakeholders can be worked out.
Careful guidelines will have to be chalked out for the local
management committees engaged in conservation. Unless the government
presents a convincing case to the World Heritage Centre in Paris
saying how the latest proposal will help preserve the monuments, it
is unlikely that Nepal will succeed in wooing the Centre to delist
the Valley from the danger list.