A year has gone by since mayors were elected to head municipalities across Nepal. They came to office with great fanfare and much hope.
With many hopes dashed, and public disenchantment rising, many have started to explain why they are not able to do much. It is a bit late in the day, and impatient voters do not want to hear excuses.
We know there are problems but is that not the reason we elected these mayors, is the common refrain. Remember how they convinced us that they would give us utopia in return for our votes?
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Last week nearly 50 mayors, their administrative and technical staff, along with resource persons from the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the Town Development fund (TDF) came together to explore how cities can do a lot with a little by simply being creative about mobilising new and additional resources. The examples of Singapore, Ahmedabad, Dar e Salam, Buenos Aires were cited. At the end of the two days everyone left energised because the way they now looked at resource for city building differently.
Bel Prasad Shrestha, the former elected mayor of Dhulikhel, used to gather people who had voted for him and ask a simple question, “How many of you have had a family member die in a vehicle on the way to hospital in Kathmandu?” Lots of hands used to go up. He asked them to contribute if he took the lead to build a world class hospital.
Dhulikhel Hospital, which is a model for an affordable facility offering quality health care was the result. He did not start with a budget or how much money the municipality had, but with the commitment to fulfill a need. Elected mayors ought to know what their citizens need and why they can trust them with their money to create a facility, service or infrastructure.
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Cities were the beginning, they are the present and they are also the future. They are densely populated, have services and shortages, they have cultural centres and criminals, they have photo spots and garbage dumps. Cities continue to attract people as they have done for thousands of years. They have great learning centers and jobs, they have billionaires and the poor, traffic jams that seem to inspire more and more to want to own a car.
People migrate to cities with their dreams and aspirations. Some make it to the top, and no one remembers the failures. There is money, there is credit, and demand for almost anything you want to sell or buy. All this makes it a real challenge to be a mayor.
Municipalities across Nepal have assets that few know about: bus parks, open spaces, forests, roads, drains, traffic islands. It could look like a dump today, but could be of huge value in the future like a water source or river front properties. Cities also have the monopoly power to issue building permits.
Combine these and we can see how a city can ‘make money’. One of the mayors attending the conference was very excited about the possibilities in the two days which he said felt like a compressed diploma. It would require real team work and also educating the citizens and opposition to implement the ideas.
There were practical challenges like the fact that whoever sat in Singha Durbar and wrote the rules asked the mayor to provide the vision and the deputy mayor to prepare the budget. Many mayors who used to be VDC chairs are now managing cities.
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Then there are the tens of thousands of business school students and graduates who are looking for work closer to home. They understand assets, asset management, city credit rating, how to attain a high city credit rating, how municipal bonds work and how to issue them. Cities across Nepal could use their skills and knowledge.
Nepal has a public private partnership policy that can bring in the private sector to pay for, build and manage city infrastructure that have a good revenue base. We do need a few trust-building projects across Nepal to boost confidence.
Cynics will say that everything a politician promises will be funded by new taxes or debt. But the glass is half-full and today we have other ways to raise money for city services and infrastructure. The city can indeed be the engine of growth.
Anil Chitrakar is the President of Siddharthinc
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