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Hello Flowers, Bye-Bye Stray Dogs: Nepal Preps For South Asian Summit

The sidewalk repairs are permanent. The big photos offer a temporary touch of beauty during the summit. (Donatella Lorch for NPR)

Nepal is giving itself a facelift.

Tomorrow is the opening of the 18th summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Seven regional heads of state, whose countries are home to large numbers of the world's poorest and hungriest people, are arriving in Katmandu for two days of talks to explore greater trade and political cooperation within the region. And the cash-strapped government of Nepal wants the capital city to look its best.

But how do you buff a jammed city of four million with legendary traffic jams, choking pollution, a huge garbage disposal crisis, crumbling infrastructure and lots of strays dogs and cows, not to mention the scores of beggars? And what about security?

So far, the government estimates that more than $20 million has been spent. Some of the efforts have pleased the denizens of Katmandu. Old palaces (now schools and offices), ancient temples, monuments on the routes to the meeting centers and hotels have all been whitewashed. Walls and overpasses have been painted bright orange and yellow, the colors of peace according to Nepali Hindus and Buddhists.

Flowers and skinny saplings have been hastily planted on newly landscaped roadsides and lane dividers. Roads have been widened and paved, enveloping the city with the distinct warm oily smell of new asphalt. All main roads are now lined by solar-powered lights.

In a country where killing cows is forbidden, but where bulls are not holy, officials got stray bulls off the streets by auctioning them at under $10 a head. Workers have herded stray dogs onto trucks and driven them out of the city, sparking protests from animal rights activists who say that this will sentence the highly-territorial animals to death or serious injury. Beggars too will be moved out of sight (although no details were provided on how this would be done).

City officials are even asking for one member of every household to join in last-minute street sweeping and washing.

And then there's the matter of making sure the roughly 1,000 visitors are safe. The city is awash with regular police as well as blue-camouflaged, heavily armed members of the Armed Police Force. There has been a crack down on crime, with an increased number of arrests for house break-ins, petty theft and smuggling. Hundreds of license-less taxi drivers are also being forced off the roads by the police. And border crossings from India are under greater scrutiny by the Nepal military worried about potential terrorist infiltrations.

Nepalis usually greet their government's activities with indifference. But now there is growing disappointment that the government appears to be more concerned with cosmetic short-term improvements than with other pressing issues, like creating a permanent constitution by January.

Security measures are also eating up money. Large sums of money are being used to bring 35 rented bullet-proof BMWs and Mercedes Benzes from India to drive high-level visitors around the city. Millions of rupees have gone into acquiring phone jammers so no one can eavesdrop on conversations.

Some efforts are just quick (and temporary) fixes. In a city where open dumping of all types of garbage is ubiquitous, officials have issued rules that ban dumping as well as dropping cigarette butts on the streets or in flower pots—but only for the duration of the summit.

Meanwhile, the flowers and saplings are already wilting from lack of water and are caked by heavy smog and dust — just like all the new construction and even the solar panels, whose light will soon begin to fade from the blanket of grime.

The government has also promised electricity for 24 hours a day during the summit. This is not a novelty in New York, but in electricity-starved Katmandu, where you're lucky to get six hours of a power a day during the wintertime, the end result will be that the water in the reservoir used to feed turbines will be run down and power cuts post-summit will be even longer.

Of course, some problems are too big to even think about addressing.More than 90 percent of Katmandu's raw sewage flows into the Bagmati, the holy river that is the source of the Ganges. It would take years to build waste treatment plants to clean up the river.

None of this would be of great consequence if the summit actually delivers greater cooperation. And perhaps it will. There have been encouraging small steps this year. India's Narendra Modi invited all the other heads of state to his inauguration, and they all attended.

But SAARC does not have a great record of achievements in a region with a long history of distrust, nuclear threats, and general lack of economic cooperation. Even supporters of SAARC agree that it was best known in past meetings for its lavish parties and receptions as well as empty platitudes on poverty.

A headline in the Nepali Times last week exclaimed that: "This is the most earth-shaking event since the Great Earthquake of 1934." Under a headline that informed readers that is was: "Just being SAARcastic."

Donatella Lorch is a freelance journalist based in Katmandu who blogs as tangledjourneys.com.

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