Once upon a time, Tundikhel used to range from Rani Pokhari to Dasarath Stadium; the land was owned collectively by the public with no bars and restrictions. However, over time, parts of Tundikhel have been used exclusively for the Nepal Army and parts for private parks and roads. Today, Tundikhel is half its original size. This is blatant encroachment. Tundikhel, today, is divided into two sections as Khula Manch (an open theatre) and public grounds. However, with the entire land of Old Bus Park being used to build a new view tower, the bus station has moved to Khula Manch of Tundikhel. Alongside this, the area of Khula Manch has also been leased out to private vendors to do businesses and is being used as a storage area for construction firms. Apparently, Khula Manch is no longer a theatre space but a mere parking lot and just another land for commercial use. With this, the legend, history, public and political importance of Khula Manch has taken a rather sad turn. Moreover, the limitations set by the Nepal Army with the restrictions on the public grounds with barred wires has further constricted the space.
The point to be drawn is that the open public space has been encroached and exploited with no definite reasoning to the general public.
With the uncontrolled population growth rate in urban areas, public open spaces are diminishing in a proportionate ratio to the growing needs of urbanization. This is in contrast to the traditional history that Kathmandu stems from, where each residential area had an open public space catering to the needs of the community and bringing them together as one.
The current situation with urban decorum, concrete buildings and congested living space has only opposed the meaning of true solidarity that Kathmandu once relished upon. Today, public open spaces get very little attention from the residents themselves as the fast pace of today’s generation asks more of shopping malls and cinema halls rather than an open ground to come together as a community. People feel more convenient towards hanging out around the on-growing four-walled urban space, henceforth they keep leaning towards cafes and restaurants to meet friends and families rather than indulging in an open space.
This makes the cruciality of Tundikhel, the largest central open public space in Kathmandu, more visible.
Tundikhel has not only been a part of people’s happy days for leisure and recreation, but also a common space for protecting neighborhood locals during the periods of dreadful earthquakes in 1934 and 2015. The significance is much deeper and crosses all physical, societal, political and cultural boundaries.
Tundikhel has had a massive representation in the cultural ceremonies of different communities. Lhosar, being one of the major festivals that has a long history of being celebrated in Tundikhel, has brought friends and relatives together to share a common space, share traditional food, converse, have a good time and relish in a space that brings a sense of unity and togetherness among everybody. Similarly, Newar communities are also culturally inclined to Tundikhel and Khula Manch as these spaces are a big part of their rituals and ‘jatras’. On the auspicious occasion of Phulpati, Nepali Army holds a parade at Tundikhel, overseen by the president and government officials every year. The cultural emblem of Tundikhel extends throughout the nation across all diverse communities. The examples carry on as Tundikhel for a long time, has served the public spontaneously and has been ingrained in every culture and norm.
To see such an emblem encroached and exploited today, especially after the urgency for open spaces to shelter families and communities during the time of devastating earthquakes, has initiated a chain of thought among many to reclaim what was once, without any boundaries, completely theirs. “Occupy Tundikhel”, a 3 month long citizen-led movement which concluded very recently, had brought activists and communities united amid Tundikhel where they formed a human chain while indulging in dramas, poetries, paintings and informative recreations. This was one of the major protests in order to challenge and get proper attention from government authorities to protect Tundikhel and many other open public spaces for public services at all times.
Alongside the “Occupy Tundikhel” campaign, many individuals and organizations collectively have brought their own initiatives to reclaim public spaces altogether. Recently Ujyalo Foundation, a feminist-led organization, had also organized an informal discourse “Talk That Safety Talk” at Tundikhel in an extension to their program called “Junction Maa Chiya”. Giving continuity to reclaiming public spaces, this was the 4th discussion held by Ujyalo Foundation for “Junction Maa Chiya” which helps foster conversations in reclaiming public spaces. Under the sun with mild breezes and open minds, participants from diverse backgrounds took a deeper look at their safety concerns in open public spaces and stepped further away from their comfort zones to release their prejudices while in public spaces.
One of the participants shared- “I don’t feel safe in public open spaces because of gender imbalances. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m a woman and that I cannot interact with words and actions and even breathe as a man would do. There is a big difference between a man and a woman.”
Another great problem that adds up to the lack of open public spaces in Kathmandu is the lack of concern of the citizens themselves and their haphazard way of living and building residents. This new era of residential living has not only physically congested the structures of community but has also privatized an individual from a community. This has impacted the social values and cultures of the community in addition to privatizing the open public spaces. Today, there is no field for the neighboring kids to come together and play, there is no common space for neighboring elders to interact. And the space that is left is limited and it will soon diminish if the same trend continues. Therefore, we need proper laws that enforce proper residential constructions with the inclusion of necessary social infrastructure that provides open public spaces for a community to come together and freely interact with each other.
In addressing these problems and realizing the next steps, we are set to reclaim public spaces that were never an individual’s property to take ownership of. Together we can, and we will. But the pushing factor is the ability to recognize the need of having a common space with no boundaries to express ourselves, to associate and to be part of a larger community.
-Sulav Ratna Bajracharya