Kathmandu Valley has 11 mayors, and the public’s perception of most of them one year after they were elected is not very inspiring.
Yet, here in Madhyapur Thimi, situated halfway between Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, Madan Sundar Shrestha is a breath of fresh air. He talks more like a technocrat than some of the populist colleagues from his Communist party.
In a refreshing interview this week, he talked about bicycle lanes, footpaths for pedestrians, and turning his town into a health and education hub. He believes governments and private schools should improve each other’s quality.
Mayor Shrestha has got private schools in his city to grant scholarships to 10% of their students, and the municipality has been working to pay tuition fees for another 5% of children from underprivileged families. For government schools, the mayor has taken personal charge of trying to upgrade their quality.
The mayor got Madhyapur Thimi Municipality to take over the Korea Nepal Friendship Hospital by investing Rs80 million a year to run it, and he also wants all residents of Thimi to have health insurance. Thimi is where the Janak Teaching Material Centre and the Council for Technical Education and Vocational Training (CTEVT) were set up decades ago. The city also has the SAARC TB research centre.
“We want at least 80% of the people here to have comprehensive health insurance, and if we can achieve that within a decade, people here won’t have to pay for medical treatment ever again,” Shrestha told Nepali Times.
Thimi was recently hit by unprecedented floods after the Hanumante River burst its banks and inundated residences and shops. Unlike other politicians in Nepal, Mayor Shrestha was quick off the mark, personally accompanying rescue teams with heavy equipment to take people to safety.
“This is the best mayor we have ever had,” local resident Sudin Bajracharya said.
When the mayor found out that the real reason for the floods was not heavy rain but poor draining and haphazard construction along the floodplain of the river, he allocated Rs80 million to unblock and maintain the drainage system and Rs70 million to fix the roads.
Shrestha says he is a firm believer that development does not mean destroying the tangible and intangible heritage of his historic town. Thimi had many ponds that used to recharge ground water, and served as the focal point for many festivals. Many had been converted into basketball courts or parking lots.
Under Mayor Shrestha, the Bishnu Kundal, Bhulakhel and Kamal Pokhari are ponds again, and this week, children were diving into the water to swim. The Municipality is also helping revive dance rituals like the Mahakali Nach, Mayur Nach, Salancha Nach.
Shrestha is working to streamline the taxation system, making it more scientific and practical than before. Property tax is now included with land and housing tax so people do not have to pay separately, and end up paying less. Other Municipality fees are nominal, and the Mayor is strict about not allowing middlemen to cheat earthquake survivors on their registrations.
Shrestha’s popularity was already high, but it has become higher as they see their mayor among them, trying to make the city more convenient for its citizens. In fact, when some assailants attacked him on the Araniko Highway last year, people spontaneously came to his aid and put the attackers behind bars.
Currently, Mayor Shrestha is working with engineers to develop a plan on ‘tactical urbanism’ in Thimi. This involves many low-cost interventions to the infrastructure to make the roads safer, including making roads more bicycle friendly and adding sidewalks.
Only if the mayor of Kathmandu and Lalitpur would take a few tips from Thimi.