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Bhattarai’s Fulbright Experience to Nepal Addresses Urban Planning Issues

By Jeff Murphy, August 30, 2018

Keshav Bhattarai

WARRENSBURG, MO – Growing up in Nepal, Keshav Bhattarai, Ph.D., remembers when he once questioned his brother about the necessity of having a ceiling fan in a house built in Kathmandu where mild summers annually attracted many Western tourists wanting to avoid the heat. With “concrete islands” now dotting the countryside due to vast urbanization, much has changed in his home country since then, including the fan proving to be a much-valued investment.

Bhattarai, a professor of geography at the University of Central Missouri, most recently visited Nepal with plans to use his knowledge and experience in urban planning to help make a difference in the rapidly changing country. While it may be too early to determine how the nation’s community and government leaders will respond to suggestions made during the visit, he took advantage of many communication tools to help share his thoughts on key issues that affect the quality of life for the nation’s citizens.
 
Bhattarai’s visit was made possible via his selection as a Fulbright Specialist to serve in Nepal,
June 20 to June 24. He worked in an urban planning capacity at Tribhuvan University (TU) in Kathmandu as part of the prestigious Fulbright program through the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. TU submitted a proposal to the Department through the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu which opened the door for Bhattarai’s Fulbright award.

Briefly discussing the country’s history, he pointed out that from 1996 to 2005 there was a Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and since then a new constitution emerged. Along with that, rural communities have been annexed into urban cities as a response to stagnating economic conditions. This has led to overcrowding, more people competing for limited facilities/ resources, and serious environmental concerns.
 
Bhattarai said that despite competition for limited resources/facilities, many of the ruralopolises that have been created in Nepal are aspiring to become “smart cities.” That is, they want to rely on electronic data collection to better manage their assets and resources. The problem is political leaders and urban planners who are responsible for planning the ruralopolises have been struggling to have real-time geospatial data to promote them into “smart cities.”

“Likewise, faculty members offering courses on urban planning also are in need for new methods and tools for urban planning with the introduction of geospatial technology,” Bhattarai noted.

One of his objectives as a Fulbright Specialist was to help TU develop procedures for gathering real-time data by disseminating geospatial knowledge. Bhattarai had an opportunity to work closely with graduate students, faculty, TU’s administrative members, peoples’ representatives, and urban planners. Prolific in scholarly research, while he was overseas Bhattarai created opinion articles for local and national newspapers focusing on various issues related to urbanization. These articles were not only published, but they also caught the attention of bloggers and TV journalists who interviewed him on their programs. Many of his ideas also were shared during one-on-one conversations with political representatives.

Among his published works was an editorial he wrote for the “Khatmandu Post” about smart city initiatives. Bhattarai stressed that Nepal urgently needs a city development strategy to solve urban housing problems. One issue relates to the disparity in land distribution which is feeding the over population problem.

“People have huge expectations from the current government and they recall the promises made during the general election,” Bhattarai noted in his article. “It is time for the government to address issues like how to prevent developers from hoarding lands by introducing special provisions in land sale contracts and enhancing transparent and sustainable property market.

“Since housing problems are deep-rooted and complicated in Nepal, solving it will certainly take vision courage, and careful planning. But for a government with a sizeable majority, this should not be an issue at all. Without such courageous approaches, we will only witness dark sides of growth instead of it becoming an economic engine.”

He added that pollution and overcrowding have rendered some of the country’s urban spaces almost unlivable. In an interview, he also discussed issues such as sewage draining into city water supplies, and rising temperatures caused by the gases that are emitted. Kathmandu Valley, which was once a favorite summer destination spot for Western tourists, has experienced a rise in temperatures. Bhattarai believes that if managed properly through urban planning, the country can remedy this situation.

“Nepal has no option but to make informed decisions by using digital technology to help deploy sensors and analytics useful in cutting the misuse of utilities such as water and electricity. He added, however, “Smart city applications can deliver significant quality-of-life benefits without causing harm to the average person’s incomes. Smart technologies cannot be a ‘great’ equalizer, nor can they solve the housing crisis in the abeyance of broader strategies.

He proposed that such strategies be developed in cooperation with TU and Kathmandu University, which have educational institutes in areas such as engineering, computer science and geography. They are looking for opportunities to share their expert sources to resolve urban planning problems. This, Bhattarai said, creates a “win-win situation.”

In addition to his work in urban planning, Bhattarai also discussed the service learning and the teacher-scholar education model, topics which were actually published in “Lokaantar,” a government-run online publication.

Bhattarai cited the old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

He added, “This analogy suggests that sustainable education is one that entices theory and practice in every level of education. University graduates equipped with service-learning education can deliver better policies and plans that act as a catalyst in the implementation of [the] sustainable development of a country.”

Through his involvement in the Fulbright program, Bhattarai not only provided a valuable service to his home country, but he takes back to UCM with him experiences he can incorporate into classroom sessions that truly enable students to experience learning to a greater degree.

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