From Rap Star to Engineer to Young Mayor Demolishing Swaths of Kathmandu

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Before he aspired to Kathmandu’s highest office, Balendra Shah appeared on the city’s rooftops, a singer facing off in rap battles or filming music videos.

His songs, which focused on poverty, underdevelopment and the rot he saw at the root of Nepal’s entrenched political culture, drew an avid following among the country’s youth.

One song, “Balidan,” meaning “sacrifice” in Nepali, has drawn seven million views on YouTube.

People supposed to protect the country are idiots
Leaders are all thieves looting the country

“There’s a diss culture in hip-hop music,” he said in a recent interview. “I used to diss politicians.”

Now he is one.

Balen, as he is known in Nepal, made an unlikely bid for mayor of Kathmandu, the Himalayan country’s capital, last May.

He campaigned on his popularity as a rapper while also playing up his training and experience as a structural engineer, pitching himself as a competent professional rather than a professional politician.

On top of his trademark black-on-black blazer and jeans, paired with small, square black sunglasses, he appeared on the campaign trail draped in the flag of Nepal. A complaint made to the country’s election commission that he was disrespecting the flag only increased the buzz around his run.

A political novice, Balen, who just turned 33, ran as an independent — rejecting an alliance with any of the national political parties that have dominated elections and traded power for years.

He won in a landslide, trouncing his two rivals, both major-party candidates.

Political commentators say Balen’s upset has inspired a wave of young, independent candidates across Nepal — including an e-commerce entrepreneur, a doctor, an airline pilot and another hip-hop artist — to take on a political class perceived as corrupt and incompetent, and dominated by men in their late 60s and 70s who have held office for decades.

Like Balen, these young candidates promised to address the chronic underdevelopment of Nepal’s economy that sends hundreds of thousands of working-age people overseas each year. As Balen rapped in “Balidan”:

While we sell our identity abroad government employees get 30k salary and have properties in 30 different places

Who will pay the debt of people working seven seas away?

Hundreds ran for seats in Nepal’s Parliament in elections in November, with a group of young professionals quickly forming a new political party just before the elections; it ended up the fourth largest in Parliament.

Analysts called it the “Balen effect.”

“It’s a kind of revolution against the politicians,” said Bhim Upadhyaya, formerly the government secretary, Nepal’s top bureaucrat, and an early adviser to Balen’s campaign.

Balen’s electoral success “has really influenced a lot of young people,” said Toshima Karki, a 33-year-old doctor who was among the new winners of a seat in Parliament.

This sudden influx of youth into Nepal’s politics may not yet translate into meaningful change, and one year into his mayoralty, Balen himself has earned mixed reviews. Some complain he showed more sympathy for the poor as a performer than as a politician.

The country’s seemingly intractable political instability hasn’t made it any easier to address its crushing unemployment, or to perform the basic work of government — fixing potholes, providing drinking water, equipping public schools.

Yet it was this unsexy bricks-and-mortar work of municipal government that Balen said inspired him to seek office.

The son of an ayurvedic doctor and a homemaker, Balen said he found artistic inspiration on bus rides home from school, observing the poverty on Kathmandu’s streets that contrasted with his own comfortable upbringing.

Initially, he wrote poetry. But after high-speed internet reached Nepal, and he discovered Tupac and 50 Cent on YouTube, he began composing rap lyrics.

While American rappers inspired his music, his sense of fashion was his own. In his first major rap battle, in 2013, he looked more like a bard, wearing a black vest over a white shirt with billowy sleeves.

That rap battle put Balen on the map as an underground idol, and he gained a following of young people in Nepal and in the diaspora with a string of hits mixing classical Nepali music with modern beats.

But rather than making music full time, he decided to pursue another passion as well, and completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in Kathmandu, then a master’s degree in structural engineering in India.

Entering politics was always part of his plan, he said.

When an earthquake struck Kathmandu in 2015, claiming 8,702 lives and causing about $3.8 billion in damage, Balen was working as a civil engineer. He and his colleagues worked on the reconstruction of 2,500 homes.

The experience deepened his resolve to enter politics. In his mayoral campaign, he promised simple but — for Kathmandu — elusive goals: clean water, better roads, reliable electricity and better sewage management.

Since taking office, his government has opened local health clinics and given high schools money to expand vocational training and supply free menstrual products.

Many plans, however, have yet to be put in place.

As mayor, he has been particularly vocal about the dearth of drinking water in Kathmandu — one of the world’s rainiest capitals — but where most people rely on trucked-in water. He describes the disparity as a “man-made disaster” caused by rapid development insensitive to the fact that the city’s ancient water spouts, which about 20 percent of the population relies upon, began to dry out when the valley’s wetlands were paved.

Nearly a year into his first term, “there is no concrete result yet” in restoring the spouts, acknowledged the mayor’s secretary, Bhoop Dev Shah.

What Balen has succeeded in doing — but not without controversy — is to tear down illegal buildings, both commercial and residential, constructed without proper permits.

As mayor, Balen canvasses large swaths of the city every day to assess the status of his engineering projects. Although he rarely gives interviews, he recently invited a New York Times reporting team to accompany him on one of these tours, and he defended his methods.

“In Kathmandu, there is no proper planning,” Balen said from the back seat of the black S.U.V. in which he travels around the city. “We can say a city’s developed when it has parks. Now Kathmandu is a concrete jungle.”

He’s confident he can fix this. “The only structural engineer we have in Kathmandu Municipal Corporation is the mayor,” Balen said of himself. “In that way, technically, it’s easy for me to execute our plans, and I can do it my way.”

Not everyone is on board with his approach, which has eased Kathmandu’s notoriously snarled traffic but has also brought criticisms that the projects have hurt the poor — especially his moves to clear the crowded streets, parking lots and sidewalks of cart pullers, itinerant vendors and the shanty housing of squatters.

“Using police and removing the people without giving any alternatives is not a way to work,” said his onetime adviser, Mr. Upadhyaya. He added, “It’s inhumane.”

On the recent inspection trip, the mayor’s convoy navigated to a group of apartment blocks around a partly excavated road and an open sewer. Here, the mayor had opted to clear some apartment buildings to build a road wide enough for vehicular traffic.

Sahin Wakar, 40, and her husband live in a house partly destroyed by a demolition crew ordered by the mayor’s office.

“We accept it if it’s for betterment,” she said.

The mayor, too, was sure the disruption was worth it.

“To build something amazing,” he said, “we need to clear the site.”

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