Monumental apathy

  • In the rush to reconstruct, the government must adhere to protocol

Feb 11, 2019-

For over four years, the many ancient heritage sites and structures that were damaged by the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes remained where they fell as rubble (very much without a cause). But in recent years, preservation efforts have gained pace. And in this rush to reconstruct, various governmental bodies have missed a few key prerequisites—including the need to follow legal protocol and discuss their actions with relevant stakeholders.

There are plenty of examples. The Pashupati Area Development Trust’s ongoing reconstruction of the unique Vishwarup Temple—situated within the Pashupatinath Temple complex—has caused a public outcry for the haphazard use of cement. On January 30, the Supreme Court issued an interim order directing the government to stop their work in the premises, citing their standards of practice. The Trust continues to disobey the court’s order. It has also seemingly ignored the various provisions associated with Pashupatinath’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s use of concrete in the reconstruction of other structures—including Bal Gopaleshwor Temple and a 10-foot concrete boundary wall around Rani Pokhari—has also caused concern over the government’s blatant disregard of widely followed norms in the conservation of ancient monuments.

The presence of contradictory legislation that are against preservation interests have only exacerbated these tensions. This is best captured by the continued implementation by the Kathmandu Mayor’s Office of its controversial Building Code 2019. Beyond directly posing threats to ancient heritage sites, the code contains a (pretty serious) flaw: It is against the law. Its provisions directly disregard and negate the Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956 that restricts the construction of underground structures near heritage sites and the construction of buildings that are taller than 35 feet and have a maximum of four storeys. And yet, despite breaking the law (ironically through a code of law) the concerned authorities have not been held accountable and the state-of-affairs continues to remain unaddressed. Six new houses under construction have propped up in Basantapur Durbar Square, directly breaching the Ancient Monument Preservation Act.

Governmental bodies cannot act unilaterally in decisions that affect heritage structures. By definition, heritage is marked by clear associations to shared ownership, identity, and culture. And because of its deeply personal nature, codes and reconstruction efforts that affect these highly important structures must be discussed, disclosed, and debated with relevant public stakeholders. Not to mention, current legalities regarding construction around preserved monument sub-zones were created to protect these structures in the first place. It seems a little worrisome to have to remind the government to follow its own laws.

Granted, rapid urbanisation will continue to confront preservation efforts. In many ways, these tensions have (unfortunately) become part and parcel of rapidly urbanising areas around the world. But ultimately, the onus lies on the government to frame these confrontations in a way that places value on our national and ancient heritage—instead of completely disregarding them. Rather than (literally) bulldozing and cementing the process with decisions and codes that were made without consultation and due deliberation, governmental bodies must engage in responsible discussion with the authorities concerned and the public before the fact.

So here’s something the Trust, the Mayor’s Office and other governmental bodies involved in heritage reconstruction are more than welcome to cast in concrete: A sincere effort to discuss plans, follow legal protocol and issue actions that serve in the interest of preserving our heritage.

Published: 11-02-2019 08:00

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