Since the local elections in 2017, Lalitpur Metropolitan City (LMC) has made great strides, especially in heritage and pond restorations. LMC has also taken initiatives to expand cycle lanes and make the city a comfortable place for its residents. Focusing on these topics, The Rising Nepal’s Aashish Mishra talked to Mayor Chiri Babu Maharjan. Excerpts:
What have you done since taking office? How many promises have you fulfilled?
Well, to talk on the basis of our election manifesto, we have fulfilled 80 per cent of our promises.
We had pledged to make Lalitpur a smart city and we have accomplished many things in this regard. We have installed smart street lights – the first phase of this is over and the second phase will begin soon. We have made 32 kilometres of cycle lane and will now build them in the Ring Road.
I would also like to mention our ‘green’ and ‘blue’ projects. ‘Green’ means greenery and under this we have finished erecting transparent fences around three open spaces of Lalitpur – the Institute of Engineering in Pulchowk, the football ground in Jawalakhel and Buddhi Bikas Ground in Lagankhel. Under the ‘blue’ project, we have completed the restoration of many ponds. We renovated the Pimbahal Pond as a model water body in the metro. We also renovated the pond at Purnachandi.
In the case of Nhu Pukhu in Lagankhel, though, despite allocating a substantial amount of budget, progress has been slow. I am pressing them to get it done soon, but I am not happy with that project.
We also restored the Dey Pukhu in Bungamati. Now, we hope to revive the Saptapatal Pokhari of Lagankhel. In 1977, the government handed over the ownership of that pond to an organisation. But, the locals have been successful in reclaiming the 14-Ropani water body and the metropolitan has commissioned the preparation of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for its reconstruction. The report will be completed in the next two weeks and we will begin construction from the coming Nepali New Year.
I have also written to the Rajdal Army Barrack to return the two ponds next to Saptapatal Pokhari. The Army fenced them during the Maoist insurgency citing security concerns, but didn’t properly maintain them. As a result, they dried up. I want to bring them back to life as a part of the Saptapatal restoration package. I am optimistic that we will get the ponds back.
Also under the green and blue projects, we have built many gardens and parks. We are currently building a handful of parks in Jawalakhel, one in Lagankhel and one in front of Prasadi Academy in Kumaripati. We also plan to implement a fusion project combining both the green and blue aspects soon.
In heritage conservation, we are very much satisfied with our pace and direction. We have reconstructed 61 historic rest houses and have made them earthquake-resilient. We are also bringing back the stolen idol of Laxmi-Narayan from America. The Nepali embassy in Washington DC has informed me that it will cost US$ 3,000 to ship it back to Nepal. LMC will bear the costs.
My main concern is that heritage-related works should not be done through tender. I have been advocating for this since day one. I am very thankful that the Prime Minister heeded this concern and introduced an act that allows local users’ committees to work on reconstruction projects with a budget of less than Rs. 100 million. Under this act, we have begun reconstructing the Degu Taleju Temple in Patan Durbar.
I would like to highlight the condition the Bhimsen Temple was in before the implementation of the act. The east and north faces of the temple had tilted by 3.5 inches following the earthquake. I went to inspect the structure and immediately called a general meeting. Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust informed us that it would cost Rs. 49.3 million to rebuild the temple. We presented this cost estimate at the meeting and LMC pledged Rs. 10 million for the project. We managed to raise the remaining amount as well in that very meeting. With the funding secured, we began work and within next four months, the temple will be completed.
We didn’t seek a single rupee from the federal government because then we would have to call a tender and doing so would lead to delays and dissatisfaction. We had the example of four temples in front of us which were given to contractors before the election but have still not been completed. I did not want the Bhimsen Temple to be the fifth.
Among the four incomplete temples, I sought permission to build the Rato Machhindranath Temple of Bungamati. The government allowed us to work through the users’ committee model. We have now completed construction of the first storey and are now moving on to the second storey.
Work is also about to begin on the reconstruction of the ancient Narsingh Temple in Patan Durbar Square.
However, it is important to note that all these tangible heritages are intrinsically linked to our intangible heritage. We understand this and have been working to conserve them as well. For example, we revived the popular Khadga Jatra three years ago after a gap of 25 years.
We also celebrated the 100th birthday of Satya Mohan Joshi on May 13, 2019. We felt we had to honour his contributions while still alive and hence, gave him a car, driver, security and a mobile phone. We also minted Rs. 100, Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 2,500 denomination coins and a postage stamp bearing his face. Except for monarchs, he is the first person to be featured on coins and stamps while alive. To mark his centennial birthday, LMC and Godawari Municipality declared a public holiday and held a rally which was perhaps the largest rally organised for a civilian. Joshi is our living heritage.
We have also developed a computerisable scientific block numbering system. We conducted a pilot test on 1,000 houses and are now distributing the numbers to all the 79,000 households of the city. We are working on an online payment system too and hope to roll it out by the end of the next fiscal year.
Additionally, I feel that the city has also made good progress in good governance. But I must say, it is very hard to regulate employees because we don’t have the authority to hire and fire.
I must also mention our achievement in road construction. We set a criterion that the thickness of the blacktop must be at least 1.5 inches and we conduct core-cutting tests to ensure this standard is met. Likewise, we require the density to be at least 98 per cent and ask the samples to be tested in a lab of our choosing to prevent unethical practices. That is why one can see that the 73 roads constructed in the city are really good and will not be washed away by rains. We even enforced this standard on three roads that the Department of Roads was looking to construct and they have also since updated their specifications to meet our guidelines.
All our new structures and buildings are also disabled-friendly and we are planning to bring a disabled-friendly cab into service.
We will also begin operating electric buses in two core areas of the city by the end of this fiscal year. There, tourists will get a ticket valid for 72 hours. The thought is that foreign visitors will try to make the most out of the three-day ticket and will extend their stay in the city. These buses will also offer free rides to children and senior citizens and will be wheelchair-accessible.
Is the local government doing anything to solve the Fast Track Road issue in Khokana?
There are three stakeholders in Khokana – the government, the army and the locals. The army invited me to two meetings held to discuss the matter but after that, I wasn’t invited to any future discussions. I met the Brigadier Generals of the army recently at the District Administration Office and asked them why they stopped calling me, but got no answer. I would also like to pose the same question to the locals, why haven’t you called me? There is a huge communication gap between us.
I stand ready to help in any way I can. But, at the same time, we also need this national pride project. Let’s say we stopped it right now to protect the greenery and heritage of Khokana. But we have to ask ourselves, can we protect it for the next 20 years? Eventually, people will build, buy and sell land and it will become like Sanepa – a place with streets so narrow, not even an ambulance can enter.
We need to protect the heritage sites and we also need properly planned projects. So, to find a solution that is in everybody’s best interest, I have asked the people of Khokana to present their bottom line. I promise I will take the lead and coordinate with the concerned authorities.
What did the metropolis do during the peak of COVID-19 in the city?
We did exemplary work in the management of quarantine and isolation centres. We set up a quarantine at the ANFA Training Centre in Satdobato. We later converted this into an isolation facility. We also established a 28-bed isolation centre in the two buildings provided by Nepal Youth Foundation, Sunakothi. We were also ready to turn the old-age home operated by Jyapu Samaj into a 101-bed isolation. Fortunately, the number of cases declined and we did not have to use it.
Moreover, we coordinated with Patan Hospital to support their work as one of the hub COVID-19 hospitals. We distributed relief materials, mainly food, and we did it so transparently and nicely that no one could point a finger at us. We made sure that the distributed food was of good quality.
How has LMC been coordinating with other local levels and government and non-government organisations?
During the pandemic, we shared our resources with the other two municipalities of the district – Godawari and Mahalaxmi. We also helped the rural municipalities by deploying medical experts and providing ambulance services. We have also provided Godawari and Mahalaxmi with Rs. 2.5 million each for their own green and blue projects.
As the oldest municipality of the country, local governments from all over Nepal approach LMC for technology transfer and idea-sharing and we have been helping them to the best of our abilities.
In the non-government sector, we have a good relationship with the World Bank with whom we worked on the Proper Urban Regeneration Project. The project was of US$ 2.8 million and had originally been signed with the Government of Nepal. But it hadn’t been implemented nicely and was about to collapse. After the election, the metropolitan took over and executed it so well that we ranked first out of 35 countries where this project was in place. We were preparing to start the second phase of this project in Godawari, Mahalaxmi, Dakshinkali and Kirtipur municipalities under the leadership of LMC and I had also been called to Kyoto to sign the contract when COVID hit.
Similarly, with the Asian Development Bank, we are working on the Rs. 540 million trunk line project to construct modern drainage and lay underground utility cables on the 2.8-kilometre-stretch from Lagankhel to Bagmati bridge.
We also collaborate with the European Union.
What is the presence of the provincial and the federal governments like?
The federal government has a good presence but the provincial government can hardly be noticed. Nevertheless, even though we hadn’t asked for it, the province gave us Rs. 2 million as support during the pandemic.
What are your plans for the rest of your tenure?
We will focus on completing the remaining 20 per cent of the work. We also plan to go beyond our manifesto and work to fulfil the needs of the city and the citizens.
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