Category: Lumbini.

UNESCO upset over new project at Lumbini

KOSH RAJ KOIRALA

KATHMANDU, Jan 11: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expressed serious concern over the government´s move to allow a Chinese INGO to carry out a controversial multi-billion dollar construction project at Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Buddha.

The expression of concern by the World Heritage Center of UNESCO came after Culture Minister Gopal Kiranti recently gave the go-ahead to an affiliate of the Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation (APEC) Foundation despite strong opposition from ministry officials on the ground that the proposed construction would be against the original master plan for the development of Lumbini, which is on the list of world heritage sites in Nepal.

A letter, sent by Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director General for Culture at the World Heritage Center, to the Culture Ministry through diplomatic channels, stated that the proposed construction at the birthplace of Lord Buddha flouts guideline 172 of the operational guidelines for implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

Operational guideline 172 requires State Parties to inform the Committee, through the Secretariat, of their intention to undertake or to authorize major restorations or new constructions in an area protected under the Convention, which may affect the outstanding universal value of the property.

Notice should be given as soon as possible and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse so that the Committee may assist in seeking appropriate solutions to ensure that the outstanding universal value of the property is fully preserved.

The Lumbini master plan developed with 1 million dollar financial support from the United Nations Development Program in 1978 aims at restoring an area of about 7.7 square kilometers, to be known as the Lumbini Garden, centering on the garden and the Asoka Pillar, with an additional area of 64.5 square kilometers to be developed in its support. The plan was developed by Dr Kenzo Tange at the personal initiative of then UN Secretary-General U Thant of Burma.

The UNESCO letter dated December 20, 2011 states that the World Heritage Center has recently been informed of a new development –proposed construction of a giant Buddha — which may impact the property. “I would like to request your authorities to provide clarification on the proposed project. I would also appreciate receiving the details of the project along with comments from competent Nepali authorities regarding the potential influences on the outstanding universal value of the world heritage property,” the letter further states.

Minister Kiranti, however, said the process of granting permission to the Chinese INGO is not yet complete. “I had invited representatives of the INGO and talked to them about the project. I have asked them to fulfill due procedures and deposit the necessary amount for the proposed construction,” he told Republica. “I am surprised at the rumor that I granted permission to expedite construction work.”

Kiranti said representatives of the INGO headed by a Chinese envoy to Nepal during the 1990s shared their frustration with him over bureaucratic hassles in Nepal. “They seemed very frustrated. They told me that they had already visited Nepal 19 times for the Lumbini construction work,” he said.

Among other things, the INGO allegedly backed plans to erect a 115-meter tall Buddha, a prayer hall accomodating over 4,000 pilgrims and a five-star hotel with all sorts of facilities including swimming pools within the monument zone. The project is estimated to cost over US dollars 8 billion.

However, ministry officials, confirming the minister´s nod for the construction work, expressed surprise over the move at a time when a National Directive Committee headed by the chairman of the UCPN (Maoist), the minister´s own party, has been formed to attract more UN involvement in the development of Lumbini.

It may be recalled that Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal, who visited New York recently along with other members of the Directive Committee to court support from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the project, is a joint-chairman of the Hong Kong-based APEC Foundation, which remains silent even in the wake of huge controversy over its credibility.

A new Chinese INGO, which has many members from the APEC Foundation, has been named for carrying out the construction work, following the controversy surrounding APEC.

The project has drawn much controversy ever since media raised questions about the credibility of the APEC Foundation which initially showed interest in investing in the project, and about the real intention of a project which the Chinese government is reportedly so willing to invest in through a back channel.

“Why does the issue of the proposed constructions come up every time a new minister takes charge at the ministry? There must be some vested interest behind it,” argued a retired official of the ministry.

The proposed constructions stalled after then culture secretary Moda Raj Dotel tendered his resignation in August after then culture minister Khagendra Prasain allegedly exerted undue pressure to endorse the ´controversial´ project. Ministry officials have maintained that though the cabinet led by Madhav Kumar Nepal gave its ´agreement in principle´ the ministry should not allow a private company to carry out the proposed constructions, which go against the original master plan for Lumbini development.

Dotel, in his then capacity as secretary of the ministry, had forwarded a file on the project to Prasain with the comment that it is not appropriate to allow a ´questionable´ INGO to carry out constructions within the monument zone of the Lumbini master plan.

As newly-appointed Culture Secretary Dinesh Hari Adhikari also did not want to change the comments, Minister Kiranti had ´unilaterally´ directed the Lumbini Development Trust to allow the construction work, according to officials at the Culture Ministry.

Kiranti said he is personally in favor of upholding the decision of the Madhav Kumar Nepal-led cabinet to allow construction as this would help promote religious tourism and bring infrastructure development. “I don´t understand why UNESCO, which did not say anything when the Madhav Nepal government took the decision, is raising its concerns now,” he said. [News link]

Category: Lumbini