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Balen Shah’s demolition drive and public support: What does this mean to Kathmandu?

Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah in an argument with Alfa Beta Institute owner
Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah in an argument with Alfa Beta Institute owner as the city government demolishes an illegally built section of the commercial building

In the play, The Life of Galileo, Andrea, Galileo’s pupil in the middle of a discussion, says, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero!” 

Indeed, when normal human efforts and the frailty inherent in them seem incapable of solving the problems of a country, the inhabitants find themselves waiting for the person who is equivalent to the knight in shining armour.

Ever since the start of the demolition drive, Kathmandu appears to be revelling in their discovery of the hero in the new mayor, Balen Shah, whom they had so long been waiting for. The act of tearing down unauthorised structures is a brave and commendable move by the popular leader.

However, make no mistake the importance it holds now is merely symbolic and this demolition effort by itself will have little effect on the quality of life of the residents. Yet, the public support he has received shows Mayor Balen Shah’s act means a lot to guide the city’s future for the next few years.

Destruction vs creation

bulldoze illegal structures at the Pokhara Art Gallery pokhara metropolitan city
A bulldozer brings down the illegal structures at the Pokhara Art Gallery.

The last person to use a bulldozer and be lauded was former minister Prem Ale. He tore down the structures built by Batas Group inside Narayanhiti palace premises. Leaving aside the Nepali penchant for watching dozers, be it by Prem Ale or Balen Shah, these acts of demolition drive were well received. It is because they represent the uprooting of the old corrupt order that has left the citizens frustrated.

It is not a celebration of the triumph of law and order because neither of the two acts adhered to due process themselves but rather rare occasions in which the citizens could say ‘khucching’ to those who used legal transgressions to their benefit. The general perception is that the rich and powerful flout the rules to either become or stay rich and powerful. Meanwhile, such attacks that go their way become an act of rebellion. The mayor might have taken the initiative as a step towards making Kathmandu organised, but to the people, it was an act of rebellion against the old order.

Every act of rebellion comes with the expectation of a better future, which if not met leads to more frustration. One could cite any of the revolutions in this country that eventually transitioned it from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic in support of this statement. The demolition campaign has also got people hoping for a fresh phase of development. But, the problem with acts of rebellion is that destruction, which is its most distinct weapon, becomes useless in its aftermath. Destruction has to ultimately have a creative intention or else it serves little purpose. Thankfully, when it comes to the initiative taken by Balen Shah, the destruction was intended for the sake of creating parking and general space so as to ease congestion and make Kathmandu more organised.

The looming question

Balen Shah
Balen Shah. Sketch for representation only

But, the question now is whether the hype surrounding Balen Shah’s demolition campaign will translate to a proportionate increase in the residents’ quality of life.

The answer is no. It is unlikely that opening up underground parking spaces that have been so far used illegally will have any major effect on the state of parking or congested pedestrian pavements.

Every other big cities around the world with dense populations have these problems and even the most efficient management can only do so much. That, however, does not mean that the hype surrounding the campaign is bad. The issue is with regard to how the hype ends up being channelled.

The level of frustration among citizens is so high at this point that if one were to arrest any major political leader from any major political party and that too without any reason, that would be overwhelmingly supported by the public. But, without tackling the root of the problem, which is a lack of development, people will forever be trapped in this cycle of looking for scapegoats and ways to punish them.

And, when every last scapegoat is exposed and the problems still persist, who will people blame then? The city needs proper roads, policies to curb pollution, pedestrian pavements, parks and other infrastructures and this requires creation and preservation aside from demolition. 

Initiations to be taken

The Kathmandu metropolitan city central office - KMC
The Kathmandu metropolitan city central office

Mayor Balen Shah should use the hype from this campaign as a shield and undertake these initiatives requiring creation that are more important but will also likely involve more protests, hurdles and disagreements.

Kathmandu has a competent mayor in charge and because he is no stranger to fame, it is likely that Balen Shah will not get easily enslaved by popularity. But, the same cannot be said of those who have temporarily joined the bandwagon surrounding him, those who would rather continue with the easy and populist way of destruction of the old order and no creation.  

Contrary to what Andrea might have expected when he says “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero”, Galileo responds by saying, “No. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”.

The country does not need someone wearing a superman’s cape and someone who is always loved and lauded. The path to progress requires making tough decisions and enacting policies that will invite resistance. A competent mayor should empower the system and let procedures lead the way, a process that will always invite criticism.

Not only Kathmandu but the whole of Nepal is like the off-road trail; there is no way one can get through it spotlessly. Balen Shah and his team can either choose to be temporary heroes or they can use the perks of being popular and strategically move forward with their plans for the city.

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Pandey is a Macquarie University economics graduate, currently doing a master's in sociology at Tribhuvan University.

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