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Battle For Durbar SquareOctober 28, 2001
There is a big argument raging in the centre of Kathmandu. Two months ago the City Council imposed a 200 Rupee charge for foreigners entering the Durbar Square Monument Zone. Now a coalition of local residents, businessmen and even Palace officials are united in an expensive High Court legal action to oppose it. And both sides are determined to win their case.
Pashmina Trader Ramesh Shakya spoke for many local businesses when he explained the problems they face because of the new charge. The level of tourism in the Durbar Square area has fallen more sharply than other parts of the city. Before the charge was introduced most visitors casually wandered around the monuments on several occasions during their stay. Now many visitors come in guided groups for a single visit rather like a museum. This has dramatically affected business with trade falling about 75% from the levels achieved last year. Peaceful demonstrations have had no effect. Mr. Shakya even described how he and several other local businessmen were beaten and arrested by the local police as they tried to block the delivery of the ticket huts. Some local youths have even tried to burn the hated collection posts but Mr. Shakya firmly denied that his action group was involved in this.
The old Royal Palace is also badly affected by the changes. Chief Administrator Tej Ratna Tamrakar explained how entrance fees from tourists have also fallen sharply since the new charge. The information sheet given by the Municipality clearly states that the Royal Palace is included in the Monument Zone but when tourists arrive at the Palace they are asked to pay an additional fee for entering it. Having paid an entrance fee just 200 metres from the Palace gate, many visitors are angered by a second charge and simply refuse to visit the museum. This is a serious problem. The old Palace and the temples outside it are still owned by His Majesty and the entrance fee is an essential part of the funding required to maintain the site. Mr. Tamrakar told me that the City Council has never provided any help to maintain these historic structures and he is now very concerned about their future.
The chief architect behind these changes has been ML Mayor Keshav Sthapit. In a long detailed interview he described his vision for the future of the city. A long series of reforms are planned in taxation collection that will greatly increase public funding for city development projects. Mayor Sthapit is planning ahead for a city that might double in size over the next ten years. He showed me the high technology city-planning centre near the Sports Stadium where support from the European Union has provided the most modern facilities. He is a determined man.
The Durbar Square project is a central element of his plans. The Municipality has recently purchased several ugly buildings around it for redevelopment. The concrete Police Station opposite the Palace gate is to be replaced with a privately funded Newari style complex that will house several terrace restaurants and shops. The school and old Post Office in Basantapur Square are also scheduled for demolition. Mayor Sthapit plans a new traditionally styled structure style that will enclose the whole square. And he plans to gradually restore all the temples and monuments in the zone so that all are preserved.
Naturally this grand plan requires funding and the new entry charge is designed to assist that. The Mayor does not believe that local business will suffer. He argues that more Western style shops in the zone will increase the number of visitors and that everyone will eventually benefit. He also feels the new entrance charge is entirely fair. Many similar sites in Europe are funded this way and there is no reason for the Durbar Square to be any different. Collecting the money at the airport might have some benefits but Mr. Sthapit feels a charge should only be taken from those tourists who actually visit the Square. It is a powerful argument.
Rashmila Prajapati, the project programme manager, firmly believes that tourists appreciate these measures and have no objection to the charge. She is taking strict control of illegal street traders and is confident that the whole zone will be better without them. But she admits that there are some problems in the ticketing system. Several officials have been removed following widespread abuse of group ticketing and the reuse of tickets by corrupt guides and collectors. And a number of tourists are completely unaware that their ticket permits entry throughout their stay.
Plainly this is a very balanced situation. Trading problems should ease as the system becomes more established but measures must be taken to protect the Palace income. Mayor Sthapit told me that King Birendra had agreed to remove the Palace entry charge in exchange for Municipal responsibility for its maintenance. But these arrangements have not been discussed with King Gyanendra. Perhaps it is time for His Majesty and the Mayor to work together in the preservation of this unique site.
It is also essential that the ticketing system is clear and beyond corruption. Several local businessmen have told me that their greatest objection to the whole project is the likelihood that considerable entrance money is lost through black trade. This must be controlled. There can be no value to the project if it fails to deliver funding to the Municipality.
But my greatest concern is for the hundreds of street traders who depend on the Square to draw a living. Balram Thapa is 18. He has a widowed mother and a young sister to support. They live in a single room on the outskirts of the city. Without any education he has no hope of finding any employment. And so he has no option but to wait about the Square every day hoping to earn a few rupees from passing tourists. What will happen to him and his family if the street traders are removed from the zone? And what will happen to all the other people who have no jobs and no other means of income? A clean polished marble paved square with fancy restaurants and expensive shops might be good for tourism but I fear it will do little to help the thousands of urban poor whose numbers and desperation seem to increase every day.
With my best wishes to you all,