June 23, 2021

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writing, mostly, on contemporary issues of human rights, politics & social justice

Challenges aplenty in Nepal’s urbanization

We (I & Ashok Dahal) wrote this based on the talk with KISHORE THAPA. 


There are 191 municipalities in the country and if we assume all the inhabitants of municipal areas as part of urban population, 38 percent of our total population lives in urban centers. But all those living in municipalities are not urban population. Physical infrastructure does not make an area urban, the occupation and economic activities of people do. The majority of population in urban areas are engaged in non-agricultural sector; the exactly opposite is true for rural areas.

In our context, all municipal areas are not urban and all urban centers are not municipalities. Our urban centers are concentrated along east-west highway and north-south road sections. If we look at the map of our country almost 90 percent of our urban areas are in central Tarai and mid-hills.

Urbanization, historically, is a result of industrialization. Agriculture workers switched to industrial activities and gradually urbanization caught momentum around the world. But ours is a different story. Central government offices, regional and district headquarters and bodies of trade are all in urban centers. Trade with India and China also helped in development of urban cities. Migration to urban centers from rural areas in search of better education, jobs and health services further increased urban population.
Of late, remittance has driven urbanization but not in a sustainable way. Families of migrant youths are shifting to urban areas for better education. Designation of Kathmandu valley as capital city and economic and administrative headquarters also drew hordes of people to sprawling urban centers. Likewise, hordes of people have moved to Kathmandu after each political change. The political movement of 1990 and 2006 saw such migration. This happened due to centralized political system. As a result, today, the valley’s population has swelled to about 3.5 million.
Rapid and unplanned urbanization of the valley is not sustainable as there is lack of even basic infrastructure. Chaotic urbanization only brings anger and dissatisfaction to its people. Urban poverty is on rise and more health hazards are reported. To make matters worse, this type of city can challenge governance and also political system, again as seen in Kathmandu. Another cause of urbanization could be government’s failure to address its people’s aspirations.
First of all, Kathmandu-centric development must change. Political power and administrative authority of the capital city should be decentralized and harmonized with development. Essential services should go to nearby urban centers. Decentralization leads to urbanization not just of the capital city. For example, not all people in India go to New Dehli. Necessary services are equally available in other cities and towns in each province.
Our government seems to be focused on infrastructure development. Infrastructure is also necessary for managed urbanization because road, water supply and electricity, among other things, must be upgraded to turn rural cities into urban hubs. Government has started urban development projects at various cities. Biratnagar, Birjung, Butwal, Banepa, Dhulikhel and Panauti have been chosen for urban environment improvement program. Sewerage and drainage, soli-based management, water supply, sanitation and road improvements are the focus for development of these cities.
Another one is integrated urban development, which is implemented in Dharan, Janakpur, Bhairawa and Nepaljung. This project also focused on soli based management, water supply and sanitation, sewerage and drainage, among other things.
We have primary, secondary and tertiary cities. Those cities having more than 100,000 inhabitants could be taken as secondary cities and others with less people can be considered tertiary cities. In this cities, urban governance and development project (UGDP) has been launched. This project targets large municipalities which could not properly use budget. It helps such cities with governance and development, as well as enhancing their capacities for expenditure.
There are other greater development projects in some areas, but such projects do not tally with urban development planning. These are limited to political slogans like relocating the capital to Chitwan.
Urban development is investment, which is recovered by municipalities and other government agencies through various future taxes.
Our laws have certain criteria for urban development but people’s occupation in a particular area is a foundation of a city. There would be various things that characterize a city: trade, business, services, industry and many more.There are two different schools of thoughts on urbanization, either infrastructure should be prepared at first or it should be managed in the process of urbanization. But as an urban planner would say, urban city should be declared first and then infrastructure developed.
Except Kathmandu valley, other major cities are well managed. If you go to Pokhara, it is one of the most planned cities in the country. Thus planning and development are different things. Planning is preparing a sketch; development is investment for production of goods and services to generate employment for economic growth.Though a number of cities were planned and developed during Panchayat era, we failed to develop infrastructure, industry and business. As a result such cities failed to develop. For instance, Dipayal, despite being a regional center, failed to grow as a city.

Again, the concept of urban planning and infrastructure development does not determine people’s settlement and population. If it did, Kathmandu would not be so overcrowded. Behind this are political and economic reasons. The people, who were once dwellers of Birendranagar, are currently living in Kathmandu. Most importantly, growth and development of urban area is linked to economic activities; the more economic activities, the more the growth and development.
The global trend shows development of urban areas is based on industrialization. However, it is not the case in Nepal. Here, urban areas have not been developed as expected due to limited development of industrial sector. Where there are industries, families of workers migrate to these areas and get involved in different economic activities.
Urbanization based on industrialization is more sustainable than urbanization based on tertiary (service) sector. Let us compare a factory with a hotel. The factory can generate more employment opportunities than a hotel. The factory that generates more revenues requires involvement of many people for manufacturing, transportation, storage and marketing. Unlike industries, service sector is based on external factors. Changes in external factors affect service sector as well. This is evident in the case of tourism in Pokhara. Whenever there is protest by agitating groups, tourism comes to a grinding halt due to closure of hotels and transportation services. This leads to unemployment of those involved in tourism.

Land planning and urbanization
Land use planning is an important aspect of urbanization. This refers to specific use of land, according to specific requirement such as commercial area, housing, grocery, among others. For instance, the land designated for residential areas should not have industries; otherwise, it will negatively impact lives of local residents.
There are two types of land use planning: compatible and incompatible. Conversion of land is applicable to compatible land only, but the use of incompatible land is prohibited besides for the specified purpose. Unfortunately, urbanization based on land use planning has not been enforced in Nepali context. The land of Jorpati, which was earlier used for carpet industry, is being used for school these days. It is against the concept of land-use planning.
There is no proper mechanism to incorporate land use and monitor its execution in our context. Had such mechanism existed, urban areas should not only have been well-managed, but local government authorities especially municipalities could generate revenues as well.
This does not mean there are no plans and policies for managing urban areas. But they are seldom implemented.
Recently, the government has adopted a liberal policy in land price determination. It fixes the price of land as per prevailing costs.

Satellite cities
Of late, concept of satellite cities is often heard. The concept generally refers to smaller towns and cities around the primary city. For example, Dhulikhel or Banepa can be a satellite city of Kathmandu. Usually, satellite cities are built around primary city either by combining two cities or building a new city in between. In case of Delhi, Noida and Gudgaun are satellite cities.
Without specific federal model, urban planning in federal structure cannot be predicted. Though the government and political parties have been discussing federalism for the last decade, unfortunately, they have not been able to come up with proper federal framework through consensus. Urban experts cannot help in this.
Urban areas are usually determined, not only based on economic factors, but accessibility because not only have to visit such areas for economic purposes but also for administrative works.
Thapa is former secretary, Ministry of Urban Development