Balendra Shah
Saumya Khandelwal—The New York Times/Redux

When Balendra Shah emerged as the unlikely winner of Kathmandu’s mayoral election in May 2022, his trademark square, black-and-gold sunglasses quickly began selling out in Nepal’s capital. The 33-year-old, who has a master’s degree in structural engineering, ran as an independent and used TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram to harness voter anger over the status quo—sparking a “Balen effect” that saw as many as 385 independent candidates triumph over veteran politicians in last spring’s local elections. In a city still reeling from a deadly 2015 earthquake, Shah’s campaign promises were simple but offered desperately needed fixes: better waste disposal and sanitation, safe drinking water, clean roads, and the preservation of cultural heritage alongside urban development. His efforts to make good on these promises have been met with scrutiny, including in regard to their impact on the city’s poor and their reliance on demolishing buildings deemed illegal. Since coming into power, Shah has also signed agreements with officials to utilize landfill sites and announced plans to separate and dispose of nondegradable waste.

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