Kathmandu revisited

In Kathmandu this week after over ten years, I was struck by how much worse the city looks and feels from what I recall when I visited last. Google Maps is deceiving. The mushrooming of cafes with interesting names, pubs, restaurants and gastro-bars in various districts along with a wide-range of hotels suggests, on the face of it, a bustling, well-planned and cosmopolitan metropolis. The number of apartments alone suggests a much higher density of population in the city than when I was here last, along with the vertical additions to older structures making some of the buildings bizarre Lego creations – with the rather beautiful red brick and clay forming the foundation of what are comparably grotesque mortar and steel additions on top, finished off with an assorted array of water tanks, of varying colour and size. The roads of Google Maps snake their way in intricate patterns across the city. The citizen-generated OpenStreetMap platform is even more detailed, offering a birds eye view of a city, its myriad of alleys and a valley writ large that offers a lesson in the complexity of urban planning, or the telling lack thereof. At street level, in a vehicle or on foot, the cartographic appeal of urban complexity on a map soon becomes life threatening. Many routes through Yala in a 4WD would be, by order of magnitude and without exaggeration, smoother and better than navigating some of the main roads in Kathmandu – all of which seem dug up at almost every junction and turn, only to be summarily abandoned. There is a fine dust which permeates and covers everything – a mixture of earth, sand and cement. After occasional or overnight rain and the resulting mud baked in the hot sun, the dust becomes worse. All this makes for a beautiful, Promethean haze at sunset, especially when framed with the old temples and courtyards of comparable hue, but is in fact about as unhealthy as it gets. I couldn’t quite figure out if the fresh meat on sale in road-side abattoirs were better off and preserved for a fine coating of dust, or whether one somehow and over time developed a natural immunity for the level of pollution here, in all that is consumed, touched, breathed in, or drunk. A veritable spaghetti of power, cable TV and telecommunications lines weigh down poles that hold up all three, like black and grey octopi shadowing every junction and street. To see the Himalayas in the distance at sunrise, after an overnight shower and before the pollution wakes up, is still quite magical.

Kathmandu as a city though, for the most part, is hell.

It wasn’t like this when I came in April 2003 for the first time, before full-blown democracy and during monarchy. I came before there was a single traffic light in the city, when man, machine, monk and every sacred bovine meandering and interaction took place around its own logic, and often sedate pace. There were no ATMs. No place took credit cards. The best place to exchange currency was at the airport. Dial-up internet was slow at best. There was no roaming available, even if you could afford at the time the astronomical rates for SMS and calls. The airport looked like a large red-bricked house retrofitted with a hastily constructed control tower, and a long stretch of unused road re-commissioned as a runway. You walked quite a distance from the plane to the terminal. Incredibly, all this remains relatively unchanged even today. The myriad of places I stayed in and walked around on the many occasions I came to Nepal during Sri Lanka’s ceasefire agreement, in the early years of this century, the earthquake in 2015 has wiped out. I felt tempted to go to these areas and see what they looked like now, but opted to instead go through my old photos – why replace or risk what is fondly recalled to what I may recoil from or react badly to today.

I came to interact with Nepali journalists and civil society on the role and relevance of media in a ceasefire process. Sri Lanka’s great lesson to the world at the time was around how a ceasefire could be a foundation for a just, positive peace, which was more than the absence of armed conflict. This was before smartphones and social media had been invented. The workshops we had in Nepal were under the banner of ‘conflict conscious news management techniques’, focussing on framing, intent and what in later years was embraced in the practice of data journalism – anchoring stories to verified information and visualising trends over time, instead of being first to report unverified rumour and always focussing on events. My presentations and discussion points from fourteen years ago flag a serious conflict of interest – with Norway as mediator and as also head of the monitoring mission – and what even then were clear signs of deep structural flaws in the ceasefire process, including the intransigence of the LTTE and a growing disconnect between the mood of the people and a technocratic government, which risked the entire structural reform agenda. The affable spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) at the time accompanied us, as a counterpoint to this critique. A comprehensive knowledge of spoken Hindi at the time allowed me direct interactions with some leading figures from the Maoist movement we met in closed door meetings held in secret, and also many journalists from outside Kathmandu. We flew around in Buddha Air flights, which true to their name, offered hair-raising, stomach churning journeys that were never more than a few seconds away from the possibility of rebirth on mountainside. Social polling on the lines of what had conducted in Sri Lanka was unheard of in the country at the time, and so much of the interest was also around how civil society and media could embrace data around public mood and sentiment in their work.

So much of this is relevant even today, and ironically, for both countries. In Nepal, political stasis and large-scale corruption is clearly reflected in the state of urban decay alone – unfinished infrastructure, a lack of standards in construction, unplanned buildings, a lack of regulatory oversight leading to physical and digital congestion. In Sri Lanka, we have today the same Prime Minister as I talked about in the context of the ceasefire agreement fourteen years ago. The tendency of the present government, as it was during the CFA, is to largely ignore public sentiment once in power. Social media and smartphones are framing inconvenient narratives the governments of Nepal and Sri Lanka cannot wish away. Spoilers and extremists are using these new vectors to reach and influence younger voters. Back then as well as today, economic considerations trump interest in political reform – hunger and hopelessness fuel a growing discontent that manifests itself through apathy and violence, ripe for opportunists to exploit.

Back then, the verdant hills of Godavari, a short distance from but a world apart from Kathmandu provided the frame for our first discussions with civil society and journalists in Nepal. We came to this country to share lessons of a high-level political and military project we weren’t the architects of, had little meaningful access or insight into and were fearful would come undone – which it did. I came to Kathmandu this week with humbling lessons of how much we had gone and done wrong. The last King of Nepal once tried to isolate the country, by shutting off the Internet, literally. He’s gone. The country endures. We thought the awful Rajapaksa regime wouldn’t end. We were wrong. A healthy defiance and resilience binds the people of Nepal and Sri Lanka, and why for me, coming here will always be so interesting.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 6 August 2017.

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