The answer is probably “yes.” Statistics for last year in Kathmandu show an incidence of serious crime far lower than in the United States.
Crime statistics are usually reported on a rate-per-hundred-thousand scale, to account for population size. On that basis the worldwide murder rate per year is about 7 per hundred-thousand, and the US rate is 3.6. Kathmandu’s murder rate is 1.5. The two American cities closest in size to Kathmandu are Houston and Philadelphia, with murder rates of 12.9 and 20.1 respectively.
Arrests on weapons charges in Kathmandu last year were 1.4 per hundred thousand, up sharply from the prior year. The US rate is 51.5. Drugs arrests in Kathmandu were 5.2 per hundred thousand. The US rate is 53.1. Houston is a little higher at 52.7. Philadelphia’s rate is 118.
Kathmandu’s theft rate is 8.9 per hundred thousand, a typical rate for a week in most American cities. Houston’s rate is over 450, and Philadelphia’s is almost 550.
Those rates seem high to people who live here. Even middle-aged folks can remember a time when shops were secured overnight by nothing more than wooden shutters to keep domestic animals out. Kathmandu is now a city of 1.75 million people, high-rise condos, traffic jams and shopping centers. There is more crime, but nothing like in the US.
That is because the contributors to crime are also low here. Nepal’s drug problems are tiny compared to America’s. Guns are illegal for all practical purpose. There is no organized crime as Americans know it.
The nature of the people living here plays a part too. Kathmandu’s population his ten times higher than it was thirty years ago. Many residents grew up somewhere else, in most cases in small farming communities. In rural communities like that, everyone knows everyone else: They depend on each other. And it’s hard to get away with anything in a close-knit community.
Kathmandu residents who grew up here did so in a much smaller city – a large town really. And by tradition families have lived for generations in small urban neighborhoods, which engender similar values as rural communities.
Rapid growth fed by migration into cities has happened before. In Europe the Industrial Revolution caused it. In the US it was the spread of the frontier westward, and then industrialization from 1880 onward. Crime rates soared in each case.
Perhaps that will be Kathmandu’s fate as a new generation grows up in this crowded and modern city. But somehow I think not. Kathmandu is, after all, still Shangri-La underneath the concrete.