False promises

Anil Bhattarai
When I am in Kathmandu, I love to walk as much as I can. When you walk you can see many things you would not see otherwise. I am particularly struck by how the ubiquitous roadside billboards project a fantasy world on the cityscape. Last Friday, for instance, this is what caught my eyes in Patan. Hung up on one of the utility poles near Patan Dhoka was a banner advertising a luxury apartment complex. It promised ‘Western lifestyle’ for its residents. The shiny glass windows and their red overhangs contrasted nicely with blue sky above and blue swimming pool below. There is a car parked nearby, a few children are playing at the garden and there was a tall wall. Did I notice the gate and a security post? Or is it an escape promised for people in Patan or any place in Kathmandu from the seemingly perennial crisis of water? The haze and dust on the sky that has begun to have a permanent presence in the Valley was palpably absent on the banner.

A few metres away, there were a few hundred metal gagris (most of them brass ones) lined up and a dozen or so women huddled together in a gossip. It does not take a long walk in Patan to figure out that most of the water spouts have run dry. The luxury apartment banner did not tell us where the water for the swimming pool would come from. Was it going to be tanker-delivered? Let’s leave that to the imagination of the real estate developers. They are smart people.

For now, let’s accept that the promise seem to have caught the imagination of Kathmandu’s middle and upper class. Why else would one of the leading business houses in the country announce, for instance, on March 6 that it was coming back to the real estate sector? Its managing director proudly told in a news conference that it planned to spend over a billion rupees in housing and commercial building complexes.

“Common people’s need for housing has not slowed down,” he told journalists. One might find this anomaly between the promise of ‘Western lifestyle’ from another developer and the commitment of the business house to cater to the housing need of the ‘common people’ a bit of an anachronism. Except, pore down the news reports and the numbers reveal the truth.

On March 6, the ekantipur online reported that the over Rs. 540 million rupees out of that new one billion was to be invested in two new housing projects called—each with nine stand-alone houses and 60 stand-alone row houses. The business house plans to spend the other Rs. 550 million rupees to build a commercial complex in Chitwan that will have a “luxury shopping mall, multiplex, food court and a hotel under one roof.”

Further down, the news report reveals that the starting price for the houses they would be building is going to be Rs. 10 million, that is, one crore.

The managing director, I am sure, is a learned man. But I am left puzzled by what he meant when he said his business venture into housing sector was geared towards catering to the needs of the common people.

Not long ago the central bank governor Yuva Raj Khatiwada dampened the hopes of real estate business people and bankers when he said that the restrictions imposed on the real estate lending would not be loosened because the projects the realtors had come up with until now were not addressed to the need of the common people. In his own words, “The housing and real estate business people have failed to bring schemes targeting the middle and lower class people.”

There are two major reasons that the houses in Kathmandu have become very expensive. One, the land prices have skyrocketed following the speculative lending on land transactions by banks and other financial institutions. Second, almost all the materials that the housing industry uses for building homes are high-energy materials most of which are imported from outside. Curbing the speculative transactions in land is what the central bank is trying to do by imposing stricter limits on commercial lending on land sector. But addressing the building expenses requires exploring options of using locally available materials.

In fact, good homes could be built with most of the locally available materials. That’s how people used to do in most places and that’s how many still do. Soil, grasses, wood, and stones are some of the most ubiquitous materials. Let me be clear: what I am saying is not about going back to the old days. With creative modern designs and a few scientific understanding about materials and landscapes, it is possible to build very good houses with a lot less money than what we would normally spend on so- called modern houses. By good houses, I mean those that are strong—earthquake, flood and fire resistant; that are aesthetically pleasing and that are functional in terms of the use of space. Our housing industry keeps telling us about giving us the Western experience, but somehow it seems to be rather oblivious to the fact that there has been huge revival of the use of locally available materials for building houses in many Western countries.

I don’t know yet what materials that the above-mentioned business house plans to use to build its houses for the middle and upper class. The managing director promised the journalists at the news conference on March 6 that, although their projects had targeted the middle class in the past, they would come up with projects for all groups. I am sure he was indicating the high price tag for the houses they had been selling. I venture to offer him an unsolicited advice: if they really explore, good homes—homes that makes you feel good and safe—could be built with a lot less money than they have been spending. There is no reason why Nepal’s housing industry could not build houses for common people.

They just have to search on the internet for how others are building beautiful, safe, strong and functional homes with limited money.
Anil Bhattarai    anilbhattarai@gmail.com

source: The kathmandu Post,15 March 2011

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