Sunday, 25 February, 2024

We don’t entrust heritage conservation to contractors: Madhyapur Mayor


Madhyapur Thimi is a culturally rich municipality situated in the centre of the valley districts -- Lalitpur, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. However, it has often been overlooked and overshadowed by its more popular neighbours. But now, Mayor Madan Sundar Shrestha wants to change that. Aashish Mishra of The Rising Nepal talked to him about his efforts to preserve and promote the heritage of Madhyapur Thimi in Bhaktapur district and develop the municipality as a tourist destination. Excerpts:

What works have you done since your election?

We have been doing some significant works in Madhyapur Thimi Municipality and perhaps, in recognition of that, the municipality was recently awarded the Asian Townscape Award by the UN-Habitat Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Madhyapur Thimi is the first municipality in the country to receive this award. They recognised the work we did towards the conservation and revitalisation of heritage and monuments over the past three and a half years and considered us for the award.
We have also become a model local level in the health sector. While other municipalities are only just laying the foundations for five to 15-bed hospitals, we are already operating a 102-bed hospital which provides services to about 1,000 people daily. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we brought Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing laboratory, isolation centre and an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) into operation using our own resources.
We have also done good work in waste management and have been honoured by the government of Japan for the same. What we did was, we collected waste from the houses of the municipality and, using the Japanese technology, turned it into compost manure. This has been extremely successful and we have sold manure worth more than Rs. 30 million to date.
We have also been collaborating with other local levels. Most notably, we have worked with Kathmandu Metropolitan City to build the Sankhadhar Park. Internationally too, we have established sisterly relations with the city of Swindon in the UK and Toba in Japan and will soon have sisterly relations with Shunyuan, China.
We are also coordinating with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to expand the capacity of the Nepal-Korea Friendship Municipality Hospital (NKFMH) to 300 beds at a cost of Rs. 1.05 billion. Moreover, we are in the final stages of signing a Rs. 950-million agreement with Germany’s KfW Development Bank for setting up a maternity ward.
We have also built a park at a cost of Rs. 2 million with support from the European Union.
To bring an overall improvement in the quality of education, we have introduced a policy to develop private and public schools on par wherein they will receive equal opportunities to move forward. In the sports sector, we are constructing three football grounds and have brought karate and football academies into operation. We are also going to build a Madhyapur Sports Complex where facilities for various kinds of sports will be available. We are also in the process of building an international-standard covered hall.
We have also passed the Land Integration and Settlement Development Act and have been implementing land pooling projects under it. The Act will help the municipality to scientifically plan and develop settlements.
We intend to develop Madhyapur holistically.

Madhyapur Thimi has been specifically acknowledged for its heritage conservation activities. Could you elaborate on your work in this field?

To effectively conserve our heritage, we do not entrust contractors because they only work for profit and, in doing so, compromise our monuments. Those who advocate tendering do not understand heritages.
Since the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) require us to work with contractors, we have not accepted their funding as well. In fact, we have returned nearly Rs. 100 million because we did not want to employ outside constructors. We have, instead, mobilised the local people through consumer committees. We have found that this has fostered a sense of ownership among the communities which then motivates them towards preservation as well. Through this process, we have successfully renovated five big temples. We have also restored five out of 25 ponds in the municipality, rebuilt 25 rest houses, reconstructed 20 stone spouts and are currently restoring the water sources of three more. We have also almost finished rebuilding three monasteries out of nine located in the municipality area.
We also cleaned many areas which had become garbage dumps and turned them into recreational parks. Thimi’s Sankhadhar Park and Bode’s Kumari Park are two examples of this. Furthermore, we are removing the blacktopping of nearly 1.5 kilometres of road from Balkumari to Bakha Bazaar and are laying down stones to maintain the traditional aesthetics of the city.
We devote nearly 40 per cent of the municipality’s budget to preserve and promote the heritages of Madhyapur Thimi.
Meanwhile, government policies continue to be discouraging. They appear contractor-friendly because when working through consumer committees, the government does not allow an advance amount. People are required to spend their own money and pass layers of bureaucracy to present the receipts and get reimbursed. The municipality has tried to reduce this hassle tape by providing a 30 per cent advance to the committees from its own funds. This has helped facilitate heritage conservation.

What have you been doing to exploit the tourism potential of the area?

We have launched the ‘Destination Madhyapur’ campaign.
In the past, visitors used to skip Thimi entirely. But now, since our election, we have worked hard to establish Thimi as a tourist spot. We want to popularise our city and let everyone know that Thimi can be a new destination in addition to Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur.
For this, we also organised a walkathon and have been extensively developing infrastructure. For now, our priority is to attract domestic tourists but our ultimate goal is to attract foreign travellers too. We have been coordinating with travel agencies and tour operators and have been asking them to bring tourists to Madhyapur Thimi too instead of directly taking them from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur.

How many of your election pledges have you implemented?

We have been working as per our election pledges. We may not have fulfilled everything yet but our efforts are certainly guided by the promises we made during the local elections. We have faced quite a few challenges which have delayed our work. But whatever we have done, we have done satisfactorily.
One of the main things we did was solve the water crisis. It might not be national news but people here had been grappling with a serious water shortage for over 15 years. They had taps in their homes but never received water. After we came, we invested nearly Rs. 350 million and now, 80 per cent of the houses receive regular water supply. We are also expanding our water distribution infrastructure to meet the demands of the newly constructed houses as well. Madhyapur Thimi is one of the leaders in water management.

Early on in the pandemic, Madhyapur Thimi became a hotspot for COVID-19 infections in the valley. What did the municipality do to control the virus in its area and what role will it play in the vaccination drive?

Government bodies have acknowledged that Madhyapur Thimi ran one of the mostwell-organised campaigns to control COVID-19 among all the local levels of the valley. We had more than 3,500 active COVID-19 cases at the peak of the pandemic. This is a huge number considering our total population is only about 120,000. We also had a high death rate with 45 people losing their lives. But still, we did not panic and worked towards containing the contagion.
We conducted free PCR testing in the municipality. We established an 85-bed institutional isolation centre; I believe, we were the only municipality in the country to do. We also operated an ICU to treat critically ill patients along with an operation theatre where we successfully operated on 20 corona-infected women. All in all, the municipality spent around Rs. 35 million in its fight against the coronavirus.
With regard to the vaccine, NKFMH is one of the two vaccination centres of Bhaktapur and we have put an orderly system in place to inoculate the people.

The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has said that corruption is endemic at local levels. Is that also the case at Madhyapur Thimi?

They have said local levels but it would have been better if they had said which local levels exactly. They put all of us in the same basket which creates a problematic perception. Madhyapur Thimi is very conscious about corruption and has adopted a zero-tolerance stance. We believe that actions should start from the top. I have publicly stated that I will neither engage in corruption nor tolerate it.

Because I hold myself to such a high standard, others too have not dared to do anything illicit in our municipality. We also cooperate fully with the CIAA because if we have not done anything wrong then why fear the authorities?

We have public audits to ensure transparency. We also form monitoring committees to inspect the consumer committees. We release all the details of the works carried out, including the cost details and conduct meetings to inform the public of our activities and facilitate interaction.

Is there any coordination with the provincial and the federal governments?

Since we are in the transitional stage of federalism, we occasionally have conflicts with the provincial and federal governments. We are left without the needed personnel for months and they expect us to accept any kind of person they send. There are a few points of contention.
Nevertheless, we have been cooperating with the federal government quite well. But I must say that the provincial government has not really established itself in the valley. Maybe this is because it is a newly-formed level but we have not felt its presence.