Air pollution has been a hot-button issue for several years. But, with the recent move by the Mayor of UB to restrict rural to urban migration, and the President acknowledging that air pollution has reached disastrous levels, the topic of air pollution has become the center of attention. The backdrop of every debate about air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is the idea of moving the capital. The idea to relocate the capital is not only based on the hazardous air pollution levels, but on a plethora of other pressing issues, including the negative aspects of having one center of development in a country with a land mass of 1,566,000 square km, and the host of consequences of the city’s dense population. The topic has always been discussed and advocated for, but at this moment, it is more critical now than ever to seriously consider the move.
In the aftermath of the democratic revolution of 1990, the restriction on migration and movement was lifted and a massive rural to urban migration was observed. At that time, the young Mongolian government had more pressing issues to deal with, including ensuring the sovereignty and independence of the country, and creating a new constitution. As the years went on, the massive flow of rural migrants pouring into the city had reached unprecedented levels, leading up to what we see today: population data showing that half of the country resides in the capital. It is said that Ulaanbaatar was designed to only handle 500,000 residents. This outgrown capacity has led to the issues that all UB residents are all too familiar with: air pollution and traffic congestion. These are just the surface issues that are visible to everyone. Going below the surface reveals consequences for the long-term development of not only the capital but the country as a whole. In the 19th largest country in the world, half of its citizens live in an area of 4,704.4 square km (the size of UB). This has stalled rural development and has only contributed to the problems we face in the capital.
We should give the new democratic government of the 1990s the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind the more pressing issues they had at hand. However, now there is no excuse for the government to stall on the decision to move the capital. The Mongolian government has been relatively stable for almost two decades. The most obvious and immediate action that could be undertaken to alleviate the issues facing the capital is relocating it. Kazakhstan, a country similar to Mongolia in terms of its development, moved its capital from Almaty to Astana. On July 6, 1994, the Supreme Council of Kazakhstan approved a decree on the transfer of the capital. Nigeria, Pakistan, Brazil, and Tanzania have moved their capitals to solve issues similar to the ones that UB faces today. The recent move by Mayor S.Batbold to restrict migration into the city is a step in the right direction, but it only looks to stop the bleeding. This seems to be a case of too little too late, and has been seen by some analysts to be a move to appease angry residents who have held demonstrations against the government. The current government, headed by the Mongolian’s People’s Party (MPP), has a real opportunity to take a significant step toward not only combating air pollution but distributing economic development resources across the country. The MPP faces no real opposition, as they hold 65 of the 76 seats in Parliament. This means there would be no significant political gridlock blocking the move. Even the President has said that the capital has become dangerous to inhabit, and took the further step of saying that the capital has no future.
The ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, Kharkhorin, has been discussed as the most attractive destination for a new capital. Details on an ideal new location for the capital are up to experts, who will take into account the feasibility of a given location. Wherever they decide to move the capital, the most important move that the current government can make is to move all, if not most, of the government’s agencies and entities to the new capital. This would mean that most politicians and civil servants would move to the new capital. Going a step further, the relocation of major universities and hospitals to the new capital city would be a dramatic step in helping to mitigate the pressure being placed on UB. UB could still remain the commercial center of the country, not much different than the contrast between New York City and Washington, D.C. The government can’t be expected to do everything, but what they can do is create a foundation for prosperity and incentivize migration to a newly established capital city. A government cannot force its citizens to move, but it can create a favorable and attractive environment free of the problems that plague our current capital. This simple, yet logical, decision to relocate the capital could have massive benefits for both the long-term prospects of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia as a whole.