Nepali politicians are rarely in the good books of the people. They cannot seem to get anything right. But who will punish the slow, corrupt and over-protected bureaucrats?
It is these civil servants who are having the last laugh over the fiasco at Rani Pokhari. For those who haven’t followed the saga of the restoration of this historic pond, here is a brief recap:
Reconstruction of the Balgopaleswor Temple in the middle of the pond started in August 2016 using concrete pillars.
This was before local elections, when Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) was run opaquely by bureaucrats who even managed to fool President Bidya Bhandari’s PR team, by having her lay the foundation stone to launch post-quake reconstruction. What she was inadvertently agreeing to by her presence was a beautification plan that was in motion even before the earthquake damaged the temple.
The pond perimeter was draped in tarp and the construction site hidden from view. There was no public hearing or community engagement. When activists protested, chief engineer of Kathmandu Municipality Uttar Kumar Regmi argued that he was just re-using old construction material.
Regmi said he had permission from the Department of Archaeology (DoA) for his design, even though DoA Engineer Sampath Ghimire promised traditional design and materials would be used in reconstruction. Giving into the public pressure and protests by activists, DoA chief Bhesh Narayan Dahal said his department would take charge of the reconstruction, and admitted to lapses.
By December 2017 activists had to again rally to save Rani Pokhari from a concrete perimeter wall that the KMC said was needed to ‘beautify’ the pond. Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya’s remarks broadcast on Facebook live exposed complete lack of understanding in how traditional ponds are built, lack of faith in the people protesting, who where in fact trying to work with him, and his blind trust in a bureaucracy that made a complete fool out of him.
When the media and activists later prodded him, Chief Engineer Uttar Kumar Regmi said on camera he was only executing approved plans. The DoA’s Engineer Sampath Ghimire admitted that DoA approved the use of concrete.
Demand by activists and even journalists for drawings, plans and contract details all went unheeded. Activists then sought to educate everyone on the traditional water management system, and demystify the 24-hour water in the stone sprouts. The KMC, DoA, and MPs were all invited, but only two MPs showed up.
Then something unexpected happened: the deputy mayor lead a team that padlocked the construction site. The mayor lost his cool and broke open the lock. All this high drama lead to some frenzied coverage in the media.
DoA Director General Bhesh Narayan Dahal went on national television to say the department never gave explicit permission to use concrete contrary to what his chief engineer had said earlier.
Finally, the mayor realised he has been mislead by his own technical chief. It must have been hard to get slapped in public by the same people he so blindly trusted and defended. After the rude awakening, he rushed to consult experts and learned more about Rani Pokhari. MP Bhimsen Das Pradhan tabled a motion to halt the construction of Rani Pokhari which was approved by the Cabinet.
The mayor, deputy mayor, DoA’s Dahal and the National Reconstruction Authority Secretary formed a male-only committee tasked to suggest options for reconstruction of Rani Pokhari within 15 days. The committee is heavy with bureaucrats and the same Sampath Ghimire who gave the original permission to use concrete. The advisory committee includes politicians, but no activists. The mayor is back to square one because he is relying on the same bureaucracy that sank him with their greed.
In all this mess, media pitched the deputy mayor against the mayor: political heavy weights have tried to make the best out of this, and political minorities too have got a lot of momentum.
But the real question and the root cause of the problem remains: an over-protected bureaucracy. They seem immune to any prosecution. So, who will drain the swamp? Who will ask why Uttar Kumar Regmi lied that he had permission? How come Bhesh Narayan Dahal is still heading the Department of Archaeology despite his repeated failures to protect heritage sites like Rani Pokhari. How come Sampath Ghimire was not questioned about permission to reconstruct using concrete, an assertion denied by his own boss on national television.
And most importantly, how did the tender to rebuild Rani Pokhari go to the same contractor twice? Who signed the cheque without proper approval from the DoA? Where is the math for the Rs30 million in tax payers’ money for destroying heritage? Who will refund the public coffers that are filled by our VAT payments? Who gained financially from these deals? And why does it take the activists to ring an alarm bell, when DoA officials pass heritage sites in the heart of the city every day? It points to something much more sinister: collusion between the KMC, DoA and the contractors. The KMC has a Heritage Department, but the responsibility to rebuild Rani Pokhari goes to the Infrastructure Development Department.
The new Cabinet needs to swiftly investigate the bureaucrats. Heads must roll, tax-payers money refunded, and elected representatives must restore Rani Pokhari. Let us demand that Mayor Shakya, ministers, and newly elected representatives punish the destroyers of heritage, and the people demand greater accountability from their leaders. This must be the reason activists have filed a first of its kind criminal case against the DoA, KMC and the contractors.
Sumana Shrestha is an aspiring Kathmandu-based entrepreneur and former consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, and a financial trader at Citigroup. She starts her fortnightly column TO THE POINT in Nepali Times from this issue.