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Monday, June 21, 2021

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Green Kathmandu: A Pipedream?

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The concept of systematic tree plantation along roads and riversides may be a modern one, but its history in Kathmandu is ancient. Jayasthithi Malla issued a proclamation through Nepal’s first Civil Code Act of 1853 A.D. levying punishments of fines and prison sentences for those who felled trees located next to roads, and advocated the planting of trees. Later, Chandra Sumsher paved many paths in the valley, and planted variety of trees alongside them, which now account for most of the old trees in the  along Kesher Mahal, Lainchaur, Maharajgunj area and other palaces.

Although now the royals have left their palaces, there still are discrepancies on where one can see green canopies alongside the streets of Kathmandu. Introduction of modern urbanization and planning, however ineffective it might have been in the 70s, led to the renovation and expansion of Kathmandu’s roads, with expectation of a “Green Belt” concept, with up to 3 rows of trees on any given major road. At this time, the 27 kilometer long Ring Road was constructed with provisions of green belts, as a way of beautifying the city. But anyone who’s spent any amount of time in Kathmandu knows that this is not the case. 

Greenery is still there in some places, such as sections of roads from the International Airport leading to the heart of the central bourgeois areas such as Baneshowr and Lazimpat, and even those are laughably sparse and inadequate for the nation’s capital. One has to wonder if the official thought process about green belt in Kathmandu metropolis is just to serve as eye candy for foreign officials whose only travels is to and fro the airport and luxury hotels. It’s almost as if someone drew with a green crayon along the path most frequently used by dignitaries, and this is made more blatantly obvious by the fact that the road leading towards Chabhil from the airport is devoid of any intentional vegetation. 

Bijaya Shrestha, long-time environment activist and Occupy Tudikhel organizer, laments the growth of Kathmandu as a concrete city. “I’d grown up alongside nature, and I’ve always believed in preserving the environment, but government policies and overall action are just not there.” Shrestha now 52 years old, feels the authorities’ dedication to plantation alongside roads to be halfhearted at best. “Its not enough to just plant something and let them die, its not enough to plant something and act as if that’s all it takes. Plants and trees need to be looked after like children, and there’s no such dedication from the authorities to greenify the city or its roads.” Says Shrestha. He is yet to be consulted by any authorities on sustainable and greener development projects within Kathmandu, despite his track record. 

Roadside greenery goes beyond beautification of the city. It no surprise that trees and plants along the roads boost the air quality and help reduce the noise pollution of hustling bustling traffic. As Kathmandu is steadily climbing the ranks of the “Most Air-polluted Cities” charts in Asia, this might be an avenue to help the city breathe more freely.  What might come as a surprise, is that even being in the proximity of greenery improves mood, and leads to happier, more optimistic individuals. Various studies have proven that greenery helps reduce stress and anxiety by lowering cortisol, a stress inducing hormone and improve attention span and aid concentration. So, increasing the greenery should be a no-brainer. 

Dilip Bhandari, Deputy Development Commissioner at Kathmandu Valley Development Authority provided an authoritative perspective on the sporadic spread of the green belt, “Until few years ago, local administrations were toothless, this led to encroachment of land along roads and open spaces planned for greenery.” According to Bhandari, lack of proper urban planning especially in regards to roads in the valley is also a major culprit. As some areas of the city were treated much favorably in the past (especially areas accommodating large, profitable businesses), they were exempt from slipshod planning and those same areas now come to have the most greenery. One egregious example that he provided is that of the Koteshowr – Chabhil Ring Road expansion.  As the expansion should have provided opportunities to plant new trees, lack of proper communication between departments led the plan astray. “Koteshowr – Chabhil expansion was a failure in this regard as Department of Roads had completely ignored greenery in its plans.  They cut down existing trees, but had absolutely no intention to incorporate greenery in the roads.” Bhandari added.  This realization came as the project neared its completion leaving the Development Authority scrambling to get spaces along the new road to not look like a terraformed desert. As there is no sole government authority responsible for planting and protecting urban trees, various departments work in their own accord often resulting in departmental clashes. Department of Forest, which one would expect to have the most experience and expertise regarding the matter, is delegated to only technical support.

Bhandari insists however, that after local level elections, local authorities have become more proactive in preservation and protection of open spaces by stopping encroachment of public spaces, and plans to increase greenery are being formulated accordingly. Local administrations are encouraged to work with Department of Plant Resources and Department of Forest and Soil Conservation to reinvigorate the previously barren open spaces. He also believes that increased role of private organizations will aid the government in planting and maintaining trees. “It isn’t feasible for government alone to maintain the greenery, so we’re working with private companies through the ward level to take over this responsibility.” One such example is the newly paved Dhobhikhola Corridor, where private companies were given the responsibility to plant and maintain fast-growing trees alongside the road in exchange for unobtrusive advertisement space. Local clubs are also being approached from the ward level for the same duties. Regardless of which department or authority creates plans in the future, he expects most of the leg work to be done through local level authorities. 

However, what is being done to improve the verdure in the city is nowhere near enough. Air quality regularly dips below safe levels throughout the day, conveniently displayed by the air quality sensors all over the city. This toxic atmosphere is putting critical population like children and elderly at risk of respiratory diseases, and the most practical and efficient method of solving this problem is staring us in the face. 

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