In 1974, the Federal Republic of Germany sponsored the first major development effort in Bhaktapur, a project designed to "tackle the economic and social problems ... and to preserve the valuable cultural heritage" of this Kath-mandu Valley town inhabited by the Newar community. In its early .years. the Bhaktapur Development Project (BDP) concentrated on restoring im¬portant architectural monuments, temr pies, resthouses and historic buildings in the north-east section, and began constructing a modern water and sewer-age system. Forced, in part, by the local population's protests, the BDP transi-tioned from technical, restoration to a community development project. BDP's work began to taper off in 1983 and finally ended in 1985, so' the time is now perhaps ripe to assess its record against the backdrop of the development reality in Bhaktapur.
Bhaktapur's former prosperity was dependent on its role as an economic centre for surrounding village areas, especially those to the east, and this position was undermined by the new road networks that favoured Kathmandu. The BDP itself recommended that the southern outskirts of town where the main highway passes not be developed, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to Bhaktapur's failure to exploit its location. Stopping the natural economic evolution of the city because it violates the "museum aproach" to the town was a recurring error in BDP logic. Its planners failed to comprehend that unless enough new local weajth is generated, the local economy can never maintain the temples, houses aud monasteries which is haslso carefully restored.
In housing, BDP put its prestige on the line by having the local government pass ordinances that legally limited the Newars' freedom to rebuild their houses with new designs and with newer building materials such as corrugated iron and cement. The project thought that the town residents could be coerced into foregoing architectural change by relegating them to their own past. Despite these laws, residents have continued to rebuild using proscribed designs and materials because they refuse to live inefficiently. BDP, of course, had to backdown on such unrealistic demands.
Local regard for the project was also undermined by BDP's initial restorations, done gratis on the most historic houses in town, for the most part buildings owned by the richest residents. The middle and lower classes saw this as flagrant assault on the principle of fairness. Class insensitjvity also hindered other areas of BDP work, especially in school building and commercial development.
An analysis of BDP's work on drinking water and sewer systems shows how the project, when it finally got out of the drawing room and unto street level, so often misread the situation in Bhaktapur. The pubticy works design erred in channeling rainwater into the sewer system, thereby depriving an essential resource to farmers tilling some of the best rice fields just outside town. Those farmers soon remedied the situation by breaking open the waste pipe.
Expensive group toilets, imposed initially without consulting local women, have not been accepted. Nor is there room for an adequate waste treatment facility south of town, an omission that compromises the entire sewerage system. Those neatly repaired streets that delight the tourist cover an ill-conceived public works infrastructure which is perceived as a sucess only by the enginers employed in designing and implementing it. Why was such a costly and energy-inefficient sewerage system that uses large quantities of groundwater emphasised instead of biogas systems? BDP simply chose the easiest, most conservative and ethnocentric option: building a western-style system that does not even work on its own terms and ignores long-term issues of ecology, energy and survival.
Whatever its proponents might say, it is hard to accept the project's professed commitment to "cultural sensitivity". No one in the project's regular "foreign expert" staff ever learned to speak Newari, and few spoke Nepali. Thus, at the most fundamental level, there was a "communication gap". The job disparities and miscommunication between foreign development workers and their Nepali counterparts figure prominently in why projects often operate so poorly or turn to folly. Cultural differences cause misunderstandings that hinder intra-project relations, distort project planning, and handicap implementation; and the Bhaktapur project was no exception.
To appreciate the Bhaktapur community's ultimate values, its ethos, and the underlying - bases of its social norms - what every development project must grapple with - requires nothing less than thoroughgoing awareness of the local religious traditions. Given its very ambitious plans for this vastly complex town of over 50,000, it is astonishing that in its initial phases BDP ignored social scientific enterprise in designing and implementing its work. Ignorance of the local society and culture and of the Newar notion of "common sense" caused many blunders that undermine relations and co-operation: garbage receptacles were placed too close to temple precincts, normal Newar ceremonial conventions were not followed when project restorations were begun, and early project plans were made without establishing relations with the most fundamental groups, the guthis.
All too often, in projects such as BDP, the institutional agenda controls and dominates a project's performance. Rarely do real performance evaluations, coming years later, affect the individual
careers of the consultant planners or the field workers. In the oral lore of international development in Kathmandu, there are many such examples of the individual consultants overriding the reality of project needs. The time should be long past when projects can be naive about socio-cultural realities or send in amateurs to design and implement critical efforts involving survival.
~ Todd Lewis is a cultural anthropologist who did extensive ethnographic research In Kathmandu Valley from 1979 to 1982. He was also briefly a consultant with BDP.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)