For a city that has become synonymous with unplanned development, unchecked population growth, traffic gridlocks comparable to Dhaka, Kathmandu looked calm, and at peace with itself, on Monday.
It strikes you at the airport itself. The runaway is spotless, as flags of SAARC member states flutter around at the VIP entrance. The slogan – Deeper Integration for Peace and Prosperity – flashes as soon as one steps out. The roads are clean. A few kilometers down, the dirty and unkempt Tinkune triangular park has been covered up, to hide the city's underbelly. Images of all heads of government to arrive on Tuesday are pasted around. Key roads of the city have been expanded, and plants have been brought overnight and implanted to green it all up.
And the city seems to have shrunk. Traffic is one fourth its normal flow, and a lot fewer people are to be seen. When asked, residents explained the reason. Nepal government, learning from how the city was clogged during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit in August, understood it could not be business as usual. So a public holiday was declared for the days of the Summit; traffic was regulated and alternately, cars with even or odd number plates could be used from Monday to Friday.
Nepal has spent over Rs 2 billion (close to INR) 1.4 billion for summit preparations. 28,000 security personnel have been deployed. Security at border areas had been tightened, and people entering Kathmandu were being subjected to checks. CCTVs have been installed in all places which will witness VVIP movement.
But it is not just a new, spruced up Kathmandu that SAARC leaders will see when they arrive on Tuesday. It is a new Nepal, for the country has transformed since the last SAARC summit was held here in January 2002.
At that point, a 2001 royal massacre – where the crown prince killed his father, the king, and his own family in an act of drunken rage – had crippled the Nepali polity. A civil war had just intensified with the then Royal Nepal Army battling an insurgent radical group, the Maoists. The security situation was alarming. Nepal managed to host the meeting, but under very adverse circumstances.
Today, the country is at peace. The monarchy is abolished, and the war is over. The Maoists are the principal opposition in Nepal's parliament. And the country is in the midst of writing a new constitution for itself. There is a coalition government in place. And while politics remains unstable and often dysfunctional, the country has turned a corner – ready to take the leap and become an active participant of the South Asian community. Kathmandu is ready to welcome the neighbourhood.