Today’s generation remembers Tundikhel as an open space from the Shahid Gate Area to the Army Pavillion. However, that small fraction of open land does not even constitute one-fourth of the actual Tundikhel which was a vast open space spanning 4 kilometers from Dasarath Rangasala to Rani Pokhari once upon a time.
As Nepal’s rulers changed, Tundikhel was fragmented for either military purposes, commercial purposes or other ‘development’ purposes. And it continues to be a subject of abuse by current administrations.
Most recently, KMC Mayor Balendra Shah (Balen) announced his administration’s decision to construct an underground parking facility in Khula Manch – one of the last open spaces left of what is modern-day Tundikhel.
While activists protested against the decision, the protesters weren’t met with the same amount of support on social media as in 2019. Back in April 2019 encroachment of Tundikhel was a hot issue, thanks to the “Occupy Tundikhel” movement. Public were able to pressurize KMC to remove a temporary bus park and vacate the Khula Manch, however, this time the resistance isn’t the same.
An open space between Ratna Park (now Sankhadhar Park) and Sainik Tundikhel – Khula Manch once was a symbol of democratic voice and an open platform. Khula Manch has seen several crucial historical events and holds social, cultural and political importance. Similarly, it also provided refuge to thousands of people during the 2015 earthquake. Meanwhile, during the lockdown owing to COVID-19, it was a place where compassionate people joined hands to provide free meals to hundreds of those in need.
According to the Kathmandu Valley Open Space Roadmap, a report prepared by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, only 2 percent of the entire Kathmandu valley constitutes of open spaces – and that space is shrinking.
Therefore, conservationists, activists, stakeholders and the general public criticised KMC after it announced its decision – along with those from ‘Occupy Tundikhel’ movement.
Occupy Tundikhel is a movement of people who came together to reclaim encroached open spaces in Kathmandu. In April 2019, the movement had pressurized to free the encroached Khula Manch after it was earlier occupied to enact as a dumping ground for construction materials during the reconstruction of Durbar High School and Bir Hospital after the 2015 earthquake and then as a temporary bus park.
On Monday, January 2, 2023, they protested against KMC’s plan to build underground parking in Khula Manch and also submitted a memorandum to the Deputy Mayor of Kathmandu Sunita Dangol.
Consecutively, on Tuesday, January 3, the metropolis announced a ban on roadside parking in Durbar Marg. The abrupt prohibition has posed a major problem for business owners and commuters alike.
“Foot fall of customers has reduced to 50% after the prohibition on parking in Durbar Marg area in just three days,” said a business owner in Durbar Marg. Meanwhile, travelers are forced to scour for other parking options in an already restricted parking availability area.
Even though Deputy Mayor Dangol accepted the memorandum to not construct an underground parking in Khula Manch, the spokesperson for KMC, Nabin Manandhar informed that the metropolis has assigned the responsibility of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) to the Town Development Fund.
“We have not conducted any discussion regarding this plan at the local level. We are conducting soil tests to figure out the estimated timing and cost of underground parking. After the DPR is prepared, we will take stakeholders’ and public’s opinion,” said Manandhar.
Ganapati Lal Shrestha, a heritage activist and an initiator of ‘Occupy Tundikhel’ campaign, has expressed that the authority under Mayor Shah, a beacon of hope, has decided to exploit one of the very limited open spaces in Kathmandu Valley as a parking space.
Shrestha is of the view that the preparation of a DPR should have been taken after holding discussions with experts and finalizing how the process will move forward.
“The decision to prepare a DPR without holding a discussion with experts and the general public on this issue shows is a sign of devaluing the opinions of stakeholders while creating such infrastructures in the city,” said Shrestha.
Although the KMC has not divulged details, activists are concerned that the underground parking will be detrimental to Kathmandu’s ecology and culture.
On the other hand, KMC spokesperson Manandhar claimed that the problem of parking in the heart of Kathmandu city can be solved for the next 20 years if the project to build theunderground parking is completed successfully.
There is no doubt that parking is a growing problem in Kathmandu. Moreover, two major projects such as in Dharahara and in Ratna Park which were supposed to alleviate parking problems in Kathmandu are nowhere near completion.
“We don’t know the exact capacity of parking in Dharahara complex which is under construction as the project is handled by the central government. And we are unsure if the project will be handed over to Kathmandu metropolis after completion. The Kathmandu View Tower project will have a two-storey parking space,” said KMC spokesperson Manandhar.
Although KMC has assured that only the underground of Khula Manch will be used for parking and the ground will be like open space, an open area is not just an open space as seen by the eye.
Like any open space, Khula Manch also plays an important role in the groundwater recharge system. Groundwater recharge helps in restoring wells, ponds, springs and other sources of water to solve water woes to some extent. Similarly, it also helps in controlling floods during monsoons and land subsidence. However, when the ground of Khula Manch will be converted into a concrete-top, the groundwater recharge system will also be disturbed.