Bhaktapur, one of the three ancient cities of Kathmandu Valley, is known for its culture and heritage. Called Khwopa in the native Nepal Bhasa, Bhaktapur is today a municipality led by Mayor Sunil Prajapati of the Nepal Workers' and Peasants' Party (NWPP). He was first elected to the position in 2017 and is currently serving his second term in office after winning the local election of 2022 too. He was also elected to the Constituent Assembly in 2007.
Long a stronghold of the NWPP, the municipality has been praised for its health and education initiatives and for its successes in waste management. However, it has also been criticised for its supposed isolationism. Aashish Mishra and Binu Shrestha of The Rising Nepal talked to him on Thursday. Excerpts:
What major works the municipality has done during your time in office?
It has been almost one and a half years since we began our second tenure. We have completed many projects we began in our first term and have also initiated new projects.
Our philosophy is that the state must assume responsibility for the welfare of its citizens from birth to death. That is why we work to ensure that people get every service they need inside the municipality.
In education, we have established childcare centres in all the wards. We have also implemented local curriculum from classes 1 to 8 which familiarises students with our town and its culture, tradition, heritage and lifestyle.
We provide full scholarships for higher education up to the doctorate level for many subjects including history, geography, culture, Nepal Bhasa, political science, philosophy and more.
In our municipality, no one is deprived of education due to poverty because, besides scholarships, we also provide student loans. Nearly 500 students are currently pursuing higher education with loans of Rs. 500,000 each. Bhaktapur provides these loans to 100 to 150 students every year.
Pupils only have to pay back this money after graduation and they can do so in three tranches.
Our municipality also operates seven colleges that cater to students from all 77 districts of the country. We offer a variety of courses including engineering and nursing at affordable prices. Annually, our educational institutions produce 432 engineers and 40 nurses.
In health, we have stationed nine to 11 female community health volunteers and one nurse in every ward to go door to door to check on the residents. We call this our doorstep nursing service. We have also built urban health centres at various locations to ensure that no one is more than a 20-minute walk away from medical service.
The municipality also operates its own 100-bed Khwopa Hospital which serves around 900 patients daily. The hospital is inexpensive. People can access specialised services for as little as Rs. 80 while other general services cost only Rs. 50.
Further, we provide free oxygen cylinders to all Bhaktapur denizens. We also have an agreement with the Nepal Red Cross Society, under which, the municipality bears the cost of providing blood to all the city's residents.
We believe we are different from other local levels when it comes to health and education.
Bhaktapur looks cleaner than other cities in the valley. How are you managing the garbage?
The municipality manages city garbage by itself. Disposable and non-disposable wastes are collected separately, and the disposable waste is used to produce organic fertilisers. Farmers buy organic fertiliser at Rs. 20 per kg. We have distributed compost bins to each household to encourage them to manage degradable waste at their home and utilise it later in their farm land and roof-top gardens. However, the growing urbanisation is likely to make waste management more challenging in the future. We are thinking of a permanent solution to garbage management. In developed cities, garbage is managed by building big fire chambers and electricity and gas are produced by burning the garbage. But that cannot be done in our single efforts. The federal government should provide land and Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) and other municipalities should invest for such a project.
What about the city's culture?
We are rich in culture and heritage. Only a few local levels prioritise culture and tradition like we do. Therefore, rather than looking to foreigners and recruiting contractors, we have focused on rebuilding our monuments through our own resources and with participation from our own people. For this, we work via consumer committees.
We have reconstructed 135 heritage structures in total since being elected for the first time in 2017. The municipality is currently working on 22 more and is preparing to begin work on many more.
Furthermore, we have mobilised the people studying MPhils and PhDs under our scholarships to research various culture and heritage sites, unearth historical facts and submit reports.
We are also aware of the need to preserve our aesthetics. If all the people demolish their old houses and build new ones in non-traditional styles, we will lose our unique indigenous look. So, the municipality provides a grant of 35 per cent to cover the costs of maintaining a traditional façade. This provides each house with around Rs. 700,000 to purchase bricks, wood and tiles and avoid the haphazard use of cement.
This has preserved our traditional look which has attracted tourists which, in turn, has helped the municipality earn revenue for public services. It has developed a cycle of public property for public services.
To promote and protect intangible culture, we organise competitions around indigenous customs and provide monetary prizes. This provides an incentive to practitioners to keep traditions alive. These traditions again help attract visitors which boosts income and enables us to invest in public welfare.
We also hold trainings to facilitate the inter-generational transfer of culture.
What steps has the municipality taken to promote and preserve the tangible and intangible heritages?
The municipality is working to preserve both the tangible and intangible heritages of the city equally. The municipality regularly issues notices urging people to participate in training to learn and hand over traditional skills to the new generation.
What do you think made Bhaktapur able to rebuild faster than its neighbours after the earthquake?
We did not easily accept foreign money.
For example, after the 2015 earthquake, Germany signed an agreement with the Government of Nepal to provide €10 million for the restoration of Bhaktapur. But that money had many strings attached.
The agreement stated that the German side would form a technical committee. That committee would then recommend the materials to be used for reconstruction. And those materials could include steel rods and concrete. Other provisions related to legal jurisdiction and auditing were also of an unacceptable nature.
But we were firm in our stance. Our ancestors were able to build such awe-inspiring structures like the Nyatapole using local materials and techniques. And, our municipality itself produces over 400 engineers and technical personnel every year. So, we told them that it was not appropriate to have their officials dictate the terms of our reconstruction to us. Also, we informed them that using cement and steel would violate our Ancient Monument Preservation Act 1956.
But they tried to pressure us, they said that we could not refuse what the federal government had already accepted and said they would take the money to some other districts.
But the municipality could not and did not accept the money that went against the spirit of our monuments. Instead, we went to the people, and they told us that they would rebuild their fallen treasures themselves. And let me tell you, more than 4,200 people volunteered during the reconstruction of the Nyatapole Temple. We received over Rs. 1.6 million in donations. Hundreds provided non-monetary donations.
Our success is due to our people's leadership and initiative and we are extremely proud to say that. Not one of the 135 monuments I mentioned was built with foreign money.
Having said that, I acknowledge that the National Art Museum still stands supported by struts. We want to rebuild it as soon as possible but the government and the Department of Archaeology do not seem to share our enthusiasm and have been dilly-dallying on their part.
The government should have been pushing us to do more to preserve this internationally-renowned heritage. Instead, it does not even give us the minimum assistance we request for.
How does Bhaktapur Municipality cooperate with other local levels?
We do exchange ideas. But we do not accept fiscal assistance like that provided by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. We do what we can with what we have. If we get used to outside help, we will get hooked on outside help. Relying on outside aid for work will eventually make us unable to work without outside aid.
How is your relationship with the federal and provincial government?
Our relationship with federal and provincial is not good. Both federal and provincial governments have not provided grants even though other local governments have been receiving it every year. The government has not supported the Bhaktapur Municipality financially. If we had received grant from the government, development works of the municipal would have moved in a high pace.
The government should treat all the local levels equally. Still, the health, education, heritage reconstruction, preservation, and garbage management in our municipality are better than in other municipalities. It will be fine if the government provides us with a smaller amount of budget. The regular grand provided by federal and provincial governments to Bhaktapur Municipality is zero. We should work abiding by rules and systems, not on the basis of who is seated in the Singh Durbar.
What are your plans for the rest of your tenure?
We have a plan to complete the construction of Araniko Seminar Hall. We have 28 Ropanis of land to build the hall. But, we have only Rs. 65 million for this big project. We are preparing to start this project in the current fiscal year. We also want to begin work on Thanthu Palace. We also have a plan to clean Bhaktapur’s rivers.