With over 25 hip-hop songs under his belt, Balen Shah has been in the Nepali music industry for over a decade. Shah is popular among the youths as a rapper. However, he has been making news these days for his announcement to contest the election for the Mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC).
A structural engineer by profession, Shah worked in all 14 districts affected by the 2015 earthquake, conducting detailed damage assessment and supervising the construction of quake-resilient structures.
He talked to Aashish Mishra and Renuka Dhakal of The Rising Nepal about his candidacy in the upcoming local election and policies he plans to put to the residents of KMC. Excerpts:
Beyond the public image, what kind of a background does Balen Shah come from?
I was born and raised in Naradevi, Kathmandu. My father is a retired Ayurvedic doctor and he was one of the first batches to study Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery. My mother is a Vastushastri.
Of my two siblings, my sister is a fine artist and my brother is a Chartered Accountant.
For about 12 years, I have been in the music field, where I have involved myself in hip-hop. I like to talk about social issues, mental health and problems present in our community through my music. Over the years, many people asked me to move beyond music and encouraged me to enter the electoral arena. I also had been thinking about doing something to contribute to society. All this pushed me to now stand for the mayorship of KMC to transform my city through genuine action.
Why do you think that you are the right candidate for the mayor of Kathmandu?
I have visited and researched many local levels and am aware of how they function.
Also, I believe that the person at the top needs to have knowledge about the real issues and the solid way to address them, which I do. I have tried to support others in gaining this knowledge and working but I have found that one can never transfer the skills and experiences they have. So, I have decided to take the initiative myself.
Also, we have a team of experts who are at the top of their field who can guide us in our policies and contribute to the development of Kathmandu.
Furthermore, I am independent. I don’t need to favour any political party or its cadres which means I can fully devote myself to the betterment of the society. In fact, I believe that all the candidates standing for positions in all the local levels of the country should be independent. Local levels are not, by nature, political. They are executive platforms where candidates are elected by local residents. Let political parties leave local governments alone and allow unaffiliated individuals to run and win based on their track record and working capacity.
Also, those standing should have the skillset necessary to serve the people. No one should vote for a candidate just because they are young or famous. They should vote for people’s capacity, not their stature.
Has any political party invited you to join them?
Almost all parties and many high-ranking leaders have asked me to give their party a chance. But I have asked them to stop pursuing this Balen and look at the Balens already in their parties, who have been deprived of opportunities because of their age or supposed lack of experience. This Balen shall remain independent.
I might win if I join a party or seek support from businesses. But that will also make me subservient. I don’t want to favour anyone and I don’t want my loyalties divided.
What are your plans for KMC, should you be elected to lead it?
We have planned a lot of things to overhaul the city’s education, health, physical infrastructure, public transportation, waste management and more.
In education, it is necessary to check if our community schools have the required number of teachers and that the teachers are adequately trained. Our education should focus on producing globally competitive manpower in the fields of mathematics, science and information technology but also familiarise students with our culture and heritage. Little things like clean toilets, disabled-friendly infrastructure and sanitary pad vending machines also go a long way in improving the quality of our educational institutions. Since community schools are within the jurisdiction of the local government, the mayor has the power to deliver these changes that I have just mentioned.
In health, we can have a health clinic in every ward manned by a doctor, a nurse and a lab technician. These clinics would provide basic health services like blood tests and preliminary check-ups. We have also devised a strategy for retaining our health professionals and keeping them from taking their expertise abroad.
We also plan to set up a call centre to operate ambulances so that the sick get ambulances in time and are taken to the nearest hospital which can deliver immediate care rather than the hospital which provides the highest commission to the ambulance driver.
For infrastructure, we plan to introduce the concept of ‘infrastructure ambulance.’ This ambulance will transport engineers, technicians and equipment to any site that needs repairs or reconstruction with the same immediacy and urgency that an ambulance transports patients. We shall also support other municipalities and rural municipalities to implement this idea. We will also monitor and stop unauthorised constructions because they can pose safety risks during earthquakes.
To manage traffic, we plan to implement a scheduling system. For example, our schools start at 8 am and government offices start at 10 am, so we can have other organisations start at 12 pm and can also ask certain businesses to open at 3 pm. Not everything has to follow the 10 to 5 routine.
For instance, if an office opens at 12 pm and closes at 7 pm then its employees may choose to spend some time at a restaurant before going home, which will boost night-time businesses. This will also generate demand for night transportation services which are currently having to close because of lack of passengers. This will also gradually turn Kathmandu into a 24-hour city.
We also plan to install GPS on all public vehicles which, combined with the scheduling, will help segregate vehicle volume, manage congestion and give people information about which vehicle and which route to take to get to their destination.
Then after this, we can start studying the feasibility of projects like underpasses, flyovers and underground metro trains. We can no longer keep demolishing houses and expanding roads. Now, we must focus on promoting public transport, creating vehicle-free zones and managing parking spaces.
For solid waste management, we plan on setting up incinerator cells for inorganic wastes. For organic waste, we want to convert them into fertiliser and sell them to farmers in the surrounding municipalities and districts. This can help relieve the chronic fertiliser shortage our country faces. To do everything we want to on the waste management front, we require around Rs. 3 billion, which is well within the reach of KMC which has an annual budget of around Rs. 20 billion. Better still, this cost can be shared among the 18 local levels of the Kathmandu Valley because waste management is a common issue for all. Also, this system can be set up in as little as three years.
We can also put in place a fully digital payment system for people to pay their taxes and fees for KMC’s services in three to six months. We can also implement a home-delivery system for things like birth and marriage registration certificates through the wards.
We can also allocate budget to give grants, seed money and subsidised loans to start-ups.
Do you have any special projects that you plan to implement immediately after assuming office?
Yes. I plan to build 100 public toilets within a week of taking office. It may sound magical but I have a plan that I will make public in due time, not now.
How do you plan to restore Kathmandu’s beauty and preserve its cultural aesthetic?
We cannot demolish houses that have already been constructed but we can provide grants and assistance for people, at least in heritage sites like Basantapur and Boudha, to make their homes look traditional. Such façade treatment will make the city attractive to tourists.
We can also incentivise people rebuilding their homes to do so in our native style. This is not a novel concept. Bhaktapur Municipality has already been doing it and we will learn from them.
As a member of the entertainment fraternity yourself, what do you plan to help this sector get back on its feet after the COVID-19 pandemic?
If I become KMC Mayor, I will make arrangements to provide subsidies to movies that reflect our culture and history and give tax rebates to help boost this sector.
KMC can also organise competitions among filmmakers to produce films.
Likewise, we will try to attract foreign filmmakers to shoot their films in Nepal, which will help promote tourism and generate employment.
You are a musician, a structural engineer and now hope to be mayor of KMC. Will you leave one of these fields if you get elected?
A person can do numerous tasks at once if he or she manages their time. I, however, will devote most of my time to the city if I am elected.
How important is it for youths to join politics?
It is very important for everyone, young and old alike, to understand politics. Regarding involvement, it is encouraging to see youngsters starting to take an interest in politics. I was told that a huge number of youths went to the District Election Office in Rupandehi to register their names in the voter roll after I announced my candidacy in Kathmandu. Young people have become aware about the need to vote and are starting to stand and run in elections as well.