Technology and time have modernized even the most sacred of rituals. For many Hindus, the electric crematorium has now replaced the traditional funeral pyre, offering a cleaner and more pleasant experience in the process.
In sharp contrast, another tradition remains resolutely untouched by technology and the passage of time. Located in the heart of Kathmandu, the manufacturing unit of Singha Durbar Vaidyakhana Vikas Samiti (SDVKVS), a government-owned entity, continues to bellow thick-black-pungent smoke as it produces ayurvedic and herbal formations.
Located in a dense urban locality beside Singha Durbar, Vaidyakhana’s manufacturing unit employs traditional mud-baked cook stoves fed by firewood. When Vaidyakhana states that “medical formulas at SDVKVS are an inherited legacy from the ancients who were pioneers of ayurvedic knowledge and practices,” maybe they misunderstood the traditional cook stoves as part of the inherited legacy. Vaidyakhana should be a modern-day museum, not a four-century-old production facility.
Vaidyakhana claims that its medicines and concoctions make people healthier. Maybe they do. But its production process is also slowly killing those that live around the facility.
Every year the kitchens of Vaidyakhana emit large volumes of smoke that is hazardous to inhabitants of the area, especially young children and the elderly. In the winter months, the soot hangs in the fog, turning the already bad air to almost toxic. The chimney (there are no smokestacks) are of short height, which conveniently hides the facility from public view but also dramatically concentrates pollution within a small radius.
How is it that a pungent smoke bellowing production facility still reliant on technology from four-centuries ago and directly impairing the health of those that live in the area is still allowed to operate in a dense urban locality? The story of the black smoke that spews from the chimneys of Vaidyakhana is a despairing tale of apathy, inequality, and vested interest.
For many years, residents around Vaidyakhana have filed complaints with local authorities, and Vaidyakhana’s management. These complaints have multiplied over the years, particularly as the density of people living in the area has increased. But these complaints have been met largely by disdain. How dare anyone complain against the “inherited legacy” of four centuries?
These complaints have also been easy to ignore because those most affected consist largely of poorer, lower middleclass or transitory residents (like students). They lack the ability to organize, mobilize or rope in other outside support. Most of their complaints have consisted of letters or brief meetings without the ability to follow up or draw attention to the issue.
The smoke bellowing from the chimneys of Vaidyakhana is an illustration of the fact that localized pollution is disproportionately borne by the poorest without the means to build pressure for corrective action. If all the vehicles in Kathmandu were replaced with electric ones, would that be environmental justice for those living under Vaidyakhana’s toxic umbrella?
The kitchen and manufacturing facilities are a picture of a stunning travel back in time. The factory lacks any mechanised equipment, health and safety records are extremely poor and the production processes still relies on traditional inefficient methods. Vaidyakhana is a classic government-owned enterprise that has outlived its utility. It is hard to imagine the institution ever being profitable. More importantly, it is ironic that with such poor health and safety standards, and a production process that is poisoning its neighbours, Vaidyakhana is producing concoctions that is aiming to enhance the health of its customers. Really, who are we fooling?
Vaidyakhana is an opaque institution. It offers very little information about itself or its products. Its website is barely functional and expresses an air of complete and thorough indifference. Why does such a relic, doing more disservice than good, continue to receive government patronage and pollute with impunity? Greed.
The term “inherited legacy” is nothing more than a euphuism for vested interest. The land where the manufacturing unit is located is several times more valuable than the factory. A complex set of long-held contracts for raw materials granted invariably to the same set of contractors drives the incentives. Judging from the smoke and soot that it emits, even the firewood that they use is third rate.
Toxic smoke cannot be the only exhibition of how we are utilizing “four centuries of experience in the science of ayurveda and herbal formation.” Nepal needs cleaner, safer, and modern facilities to take advantage of its “inherited legacy.”