The first session of the Himalayan Consensus Summit was all about looking at development issues in the Himalayan region with a new lense. The Himalayan region has always seen replication of economic development models that are not tailor made to the availability of resources, topography and ecology. For instance, planning of towns in the hills have been designed replicating plans of large urban cities in the plains. The impact of natural disaster and the proliferation of disasters like landslides etc., have been a result of not looking at creative and new models tailor made to the unique Himalayan context. This session brought together practitioners who shared their perspectives on what went wrong, and shared new lenses to look at development in the Himalayas. This session was moderated by editor of Himal Southasian—Aunohita Mojumdar.
How Man Wong, President of China Exploration and Research Society, stated that to him the idea of ‘consensus’ denoted building together something that all stakeholders agree upon; the common denominator of things. Wong stated that it is not enough to only document change, but we also have to actively work towards protecting the environment by empowering communities through capacity-building. He maintained that nature and culture are not bound by political borders; and therefore highlighted the need to understand the Himalayan ecology transcending borders.
Sarosh Pradhan, Principal Architect, Sarosh Pradhan & Associates reflected on the models that are today used for architecture in the Himalayan region which are a complete departure from the traditional forms and materials used. He focused on how modern methods of building were seen as a sign of affluence and that people who were coming out of conditions of lower living standards to higher ones embraced such modern methods as symbols of their new found prosperity.
Christian Manhart, UNESCO representative to Nepal, talked about how while most people were talking about the resilience of the new concrete structures in Kathmandu at the face of the earthquake when the old houses built in traditional methods collapsed, the truth in fact is that the concrete structures were able to withstand the tremors because they were new, and the traditional methods of building, if properly maintained, are a much better alternative to modern concrete based structures. Manhart also highlighted the signs of loss of traditional architecture citing the example of how the wooden beams and crafts from important heritage monuments were improperly stored without protection from weather conditions despite the support provided by organizations like UNESCO.
How Man Wong, talking about the ways of working with respect for natural resources and cultural heritages, reflected about importance of integrating cultural identities with integrity and self-respect and its nexus with the natural environment. In the modern world, efficiency has become so important that valuable creations like handicrafts have lost ground to mechanized productions, Wong shared.
Talking about ways of countering the need for economic efficiency in modern building methods— which are not sustainable in the long run— Sarosh Pradhan opined that interventions such as strict building codes and their due implementation, and proper awareness among the general public could go a long way in building better.
Aunohita, moderator of the session, cited examples of Patan Durbar Square where local community’s efforts to protecting and recovering quake-damaged sites in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and thin presence of state bringing to fore the importance of the sense of responsibility and ownership in the community of their heritage. Manhart concurred, sharing his own experiences of the same site where local community had mobilized resources in an organized way to protect the damaged sites and artifacts. However, slowly, as bureaucracy crept in it was difficult for these communities to engage in the process which could have implications in terms of the sense of ownership of the heritage which has led to a slower pace of reconstruction efforts. How Man Wong also stated that it is still the local communities who are best suited to work their ways around the maze of corrupt bureaucracy and lax governance to work towards nature and heritage conservation.
Enriched by valuable ideas and experiences shared by experts and practitioners on the challenges faced by the Himalayan region, the outcome of the session was the understanding that development in the Himalayan region needs to be viewed from a new perspective respecting natural and cultural heritages and engaging the local communities fruitfully in the process.