The earthquakes of April 2015 literally shook all of us out of our complacency, and forced us to understand the value of open spaces — just as after the 1934 earthquake, when tens of thousands of Kathmandu residents moved to the open grounds at Tundikhel, or to Lagankhel in Patan.
But memories of disasters are short-lived, and in the past five years instead of protecting the last remaining spaces in Kathmandu Valley, we have allowed them to be encroached upon. At the heart of Kathmandu, Tundikhel represents in a microcosm what is happening across urban Nepal as people move into the cities and real estate prices soar.
The land mafia, with its political protection, has infiltrated school management committees and taken over most school playgrounds located on prime real estate. The government created a green belt on the Ring Road — now it is busy chopping down the last remaining jacarandas. The vehicle lobby is obviously stronger than the tree lobby.
This newspaper has been covering the shrinking Tundikhel since 2002, and for the first time printed maps showing the army’s steady encroachment into the open space. Since the government seems to be too slow to act, it is the public and communities that need to be vigilant — which is why the current #OccupyTundikhel campaign is so important.
One good way to begin protecting open spaces like Tundikhel would be to have every local government across the country make an inventory of such spaces in its jurisdiction. These should then be added to a national open space protected list, and legislation passed to ensure no one who eyes them can actually get their hands on these invaluable areas.
Former Patan mayor Buddhi Raj Bajracharya set a good example by protecting community spaces during his tenure. A national database could be created and made available online so that no one dares to buy, sell or encroach on these open spaces.
Rituals and festivals can be important reasons to save many of the Kathmandu Valley’s open spaces from encroachment. Tundikhel hosts annual festivals like the feeding of the Gurumapa, Ghoda Jatra, Shivaratri and, more recently, the New Year’s Day showcase of numerous ethnic groups from across Nepal.
A published calendar of such events could help enhance the feeling of ownership of open spaces across the country. Disaster preparedness drills in places like Tundikhel could also be pencilled in as regular events.
Nepal’s stellar performance in the South Asian Games 2019 could be another reason to invest in saving open spaces. Tundikhel can be dedicated to all future Nepali gold medallists at the Olympics, World Cups and Asian Games. Names of all those who win medals for Nepal could be inscribed on a special monument. With only temporary structures allowed, sports could provide an effective incentive to care for these spaces.
At a time when many Nepalis believe the way to prosperity is not education or enterprise but politics, open spaces could be protected as places where Nepalis gather and practise free speech. The name Khula Manch, which means ‘open stage’, has always held a Hyde Park connotation in Kathmandu, even during the days of absolute monarchy. It is a place where anyone can say anything and not face prosecution of any kind. The country should designate Khulla Manch(s) in all 753 municipalities, inspired by the first one at Tundikhel.
The oral tradition of the Kathmandu Valley tells us that Tundikhel (Tinkhya) was land bought by wealthy Lhasa traders who needed space to unload and load goods and as a camping ground for porters and pack animals. After the Sugauli treaty of 1816, Muktiyar Bhimsen Thapa used Tundikhel to parade the Nepal Army, in a bid to impress the British of the country’s military might.
This great open space has shrunk over time. Rana rulers built Bir Hospital and the military hospital and the Panchayat leaders constructed the post office, the RNAC building, NEA and City Hall. These were all within the boundaries of greater Tundikhel. The road around it was widened during the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1962.
From charging ground water to impressing the British envoy and from hosting ancient rituals to New Year’s Day celebrations, Tundikhel has served us well. The temporary bus terminal and school have to be moved immediately and the army has to return to the people what rightfully belongs to them. After the next earthquake, let us not be forced to say: “I told you so.”
And let us not listen to economists and finance experts who tell us we need to monetise everything. Not everything should be valued in cash. Let Tundikhel be what Tundikhel was. End of the debate.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc