When Sitaram Kattel and Kunjana Ghimire announced their plans to build an international-standard cricket stadium back in 2018, they were showered with plaudits from near and far. Then the blueprint for the “Lord Buddha International Stadium” to be built in Bharatpur Metropolitan City, Chitwan, was made public. Nepalis, wherever they lived, vowed to help the quest of the actor duo popular in Nepali television as Dhurmus and Suntali respectively.
After the 2015 earthquakes, the comedian duo had formed the Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation to help with relief efforts. With the help of generous Nepalis, mostly living or working abroad, Dhurmus-Suntali came to the aid of thousands of people and built model communities to rehabilitate those that had lost their homes to the quakes. The public support and success that characterized their previous effort was what prompted the duo to undertake the Rs 3-billion stadium project.
“Since the day we announced the stadium, we have received overwhelming support from Nepalis all over the world. With their contribution and government support, we will complete the project in record time,” Kattel had said in an interview with ApEx back in April 2018. “Before, we were working for small communities. Now this project is for the pride of the whole country and we believe every Nepali will take part enthusiastically,” Ghimire had added.
The project had an auspicious start. Almost Rs 700 million was pledged during a maha yagya held in January 2020 to raise funds for the stadium. But till now, only around 15-20 percent of the pledged amount has come through. With almost 30 percent of infrastructure completed and nearly Rs 500 million already spent, the project has hit a brick wall as donations have dried up. Outstanding dues are worth almost Rs 140 million.
The Bharatpur Metroplitan City allocated around 34 acres for the stadium which is to be handed over to it after completion. Initially planned for 40,000 spectator, stadium capacity was later brought down to 25,000. Once completed, the stadium will be compliant with the International Cricket Council standards and be able to host international matches. It will also double as a sports village with facilities for other sports like football, volleyball, basketball, badminton, taekwondo, swimming and fitness center.
Only a couple of years after the project’s start, the initial rosy picture painted by Dhurmus-Suntali has been shrouded in skepticism and controversy. First, there was a land issue with the locals of Bharatpur as the locals accused the stadium of not leaving enough space for roads and disrupted construction.
The land dispute was quickly resolved but what followed was something the whole world was unprepared for. The Covid-19 pandemic made 2020 one of the longest years for mankind and brought many countries to an economic standstill. The same pandemic brought disaster to the stadium as well. With people losing their jobs and bearing losses, the project run entirely on donations stopped getting funds. Construction continued even during the pandemic and lockdowns but payment for the work stopped, with debt accumulating to alarming levels.
Hopes and doubts
On a Mechi-Mahakali tour from mid-March, Dhurmus-Suntali are confident they will complete the stadium despite the controversies and financial crunch. In recent times, the couple has been under fire, criticized for indulging in an ambitious project which will not contribute to the national economy.
Kattel, aka Dhurmus, however believes that a sports stadium is almost as important as hospitals or schools for a developing country. ApEx could get hold of him on the phone only after much difficulty because of his busy tour schedule. “We were devastated when we stopped getting donations and were criticized for our efforts,” Kattel says. “At this point, we cannot think about other alternate projects. We will look to build schools and hospitals, as some people want us to, only when the stadium, on which we have invested so much of our time and energy, is complete.”
Despite being at the receiving end of harsh criticism on social media, including abuses and threats, the Mechi-Mahakali tour organized to collect funds and people’s opinions, has thus far been successful, Kattel informs. Confirming the debt of around Rs 140 million, Kattel is hopeful of collecting enough funds to settle the debt and complete the project.
Actor/producer Anurag Kunwar, a colleague and also a close associate of the Dhurmus-Suntali duo, emphasizes the importance of sports for national development and how the foundation’s initiatives will serve future sportspersons and the country as a whole.
“Sports are a part of life and I admire what Dhurmus-Suntali are doing in the country for the cause,” says Kunwar, who had previously contributed and also helped raised donations for the Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation’s reconstruction projects. “I will also help them with the stadium as soon as I am done with some of my other commitments.”
Another colleague and close friend from the acting fraternity, Nirmal Sharma, says he wholeheartedly supports the stadium. “I donated to the foundation when they were doing the Musahar community settlement project and also to the mahayagya for the cricket stadium,” Sharma informs.
Sharma has in the past been vocal about his support for the foundation as well as the stadium. But in recent times, following controversies and criticisms, he has had to distance himself. “I still hope the foundation completes the project and gives us an international stadium,” Sharma says. “At the same time, I hope there will be full transparency and accountability.”
An actor who has in the past supported the stadium now shares her skepticism. “If you ask me, this is an impractical project,” she says, requesting anonymity. “Initially I was curious about what the constructors were doing in the name of patriotism. Now I think transparency and monopoly are issues that need to be resolved.”
The situation is a complex one for the fraternity, especially for the ones who in the past openly supported the project. The actor emphasizes the need for practical arguments rather than emotional dialogues. There has been no technical valuation of the project and investments, she says, adding that “this project either needs to be stopped or handed over to the government.”
Consultant civil engineer and educator Ramesh Subedi also questions the stadium’s viability. “At the risk of sounding anti-development, I have to tell you that most development projects in Nepal are undertaken on a whim,” says Subedi. “There is no proper feasibility study.”
The same applies to the stadium, Subedi believes. This is a mega-project by Nepali standards and to launch a project of this magnitude, its developers should make a scientific calculation of its usability and return on investment. “We do not know how many matches a year will be played here. Or at least how many matches should be played per year to bring it to optimal use. Do you really need a 25,000-capacity stadium? Did we really need to invest so much?” Subedi asks. He also criticizes the foundation for collecting the meagre earnings of migrant workers and rural folks by making an emotional appeal.
The role of Bharatpur Metropolitan City
The Bharatpur Metropolitan City, one of the most affluent metropolitans in the country, allotted land for the stadium under the initiative of its mayor Renu Dahal. The city also organized the mahayagya and raised around Rs 120 million. Besides, Bharatpur metropolitan office this year allocated Rs 80 million for the project while its employees donated a month’s salary each. (The stadium is to be handed over to the city after completion.)
Now that the project seems to be in limbo, mayor Dahal says Bharatpur is ready to take over construction if the foundation can’t complete it. She also refutes all allegations against the city office: “If someone thinks there is a discrepancy, they can take us to court and jail us.” In strong words, Dahal also warns those in the media “spreading baseless rumors against the stadium”.
Bharatpur, dubbed ‘the medical city’ for its many hospitals and medical schools, is already at par with other developed cities in the country. “At present, more than anything else, we need an international stadium. How can we be a metropolitan city without one?” Dahal asks.
Not just cricket
Rubina Chhetry, captain of the Nepali women’s national cricket team, is irked by the negativity surrounding stadium construction. An international standard stadium is important for Nepal if only to its ODI nation category, Chhetry says. At the time the Dhurmus-Suntali Foundation announced the stadium, there were no such initiatives.
“I am not only a cricketer but also a sportsperson and I know the value of a well-equipped stadium,” she adds. “This stadium will benefit not only cricket but also other major sports played in the country.”
Chhetry, who has played international matches abroad, feels something is amiss when she plays at home. The government has its hands full with multiple things. Thus there is nothing wrong with a private organization taking the initiative to build a national stadium, Chhetry says. “How are they who are building the stadium for the country rather than for their own benefit to be blamed?”