The world greeted the news about Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and claimed more than 2000 lives (and destroyed cultural treasures in the Kathmandu Valley), with absolute horror. This was unfortunately a disaster waiting to happen.
I first visited the Kathmandu Valley in 2004, when the country was in the midst of a Maoist insurgency that finally ended up toppling the monarchy. Although there were many tourists in the country, the infrastructure was decent enough at the time to manage the numbers. The air in the Nepalese capital was clean and the now-infamous tourist ghetto of Thamel was actually a relaxed place where tired trekkers cooled off their heels and adventurers waited their Tibet permits.
Fast forward to October 2014…I was horrified at what I saw when returned to the valley after a 10-year gap. Thamel had been over-developed to death. It was a congested tourist ghetto where buildings sprang up in every corner and the roads, without sidewalks, grew narrower. The effects of commercial tourism were visible everywhere: over-crowding, a 20-fold rise in the cost of just about everything and a new industry of scam artists to con unsuspecting tourists.
The air was smoggy and the pollution levels were much closer to what they are in Delhi. As I travelled to villages and the countryside, I noticed the excessive development that was wrecking havoc with nature. Trekkers told me of their counterparts dumping plastics and other garbage on the once virgin hillsides. Deforestation ruled the day and mountains were losing their green cover and slowly becoming barren.
Like in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, where overdevelopment and deforestation thanks to the religious tourism industry lead to major floods, Mother Nature struck back in Nepal.
The greatest tragedy no doubt is the loss of life and homes. However, the world has lost some historic and architectural gems as well. The wonderful and imposing palace squares in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, which showed the best of Pagoda Architecture (something that spread to South India and Korea, China and Japan), have been destroyed. No matter what kind of efforts are made to restore them, the squares with such magnificent temples will never be the same again.