Kathmandu Valley to account. Republica’s Thira L Bhusal and Mahabir Paudyal spoke to the committee chairperson, Rabindra Adhikari, on the state of valley roads. What explains the woeful state of our roads, and can we expect things to get better anytime soon?
How do we make sense of the horrendous state of the roads in Kathmandu Valley, which has already claimed one life this monsoon?
There are three factors to it. One, today’s Kathmandu is the result of a century-old master plan. Today it has many more houses and way too many people than it had, say, even a decade ago. With increased settlements, the need for infrastructures and other facilities has also increased. But infrastructures to support this huge population are the ones devised and built during the Rana era. Meanwhile, the population has increased about 30 fold. We should have developed infrastructures in direct proportion to rising population and ever-expanding urbanization of Kathmandu and its surroundings. We failed to do so.
Consider our roads. There is virtually no difference between valley roads and the highways. The city roads should have at least pavements, proper sanitation and drainage system, some greenery, service lane, well-functioning traffic signs, bus stops and they should be disabled-friendly as well. How many of Kathmandu roads have these facilities? There should be utility pipes along the sides of the roads for telephone and electricity cables, water pipes, television cables and optical fibers. We don’t have this either. So when one of these goes out of order, the entire road section has to be dug up. For example, we could have arranged for underground electricity and telephone cables while we were working on the water pipes of Melamchi project. We had even asked the concerned authorities to do this but to no avail.
This is the first reason. What are the other two that you just pointed out?
The second reason is that we don’t have an autonomous and powerful authority to oversee, regulate and monitor infrastructure works. Such an authority could coordinate with department of roads, electricity authority, telecom, drinking water supplier, and planning commission. At the moment National Planning Commission and Office of the Prime Minister need to coordinate these works. But the officials there seem to have neither the time nor the will for it. So the situation today is that every authority—be it related to road, telecom or electricity—concentrates on its own work and does not care how it is hampering the works of other departments. Drinking water project lays down pipelines without coordinating with telecom and electricity authority, and vice versa. So this year telecom body digs up the road, six months later electricity authority may do the same. We thus need a powerful authority both to coordinate and lead service-related development works.
That may be the case. But how can government agencies be so negligent, to the point that a child falls into a pothole and dies?
There was a safety oversight that contributed to this tragic incident. The concerned authority which digs the roads to lay the pipes must adopt certain safety measures. We had instructed Melamchi project to carry out its works during the night and to set up proper safety barriers around working sites.
Now every imaginable authority, from the Department of Road, Metropolitan Office, Melamchi Project, to Road Expansion Project is digging up the roads. There is no coordination nor do they feel accountable to people.
You talked about a single authority to coordinate and control infrastructure building. What happened to the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority?
Yes we had such an authority. But we had other such bodies as well. We had Nepal Investment Board to channel investments through one window. Today the board is almost dysfunctional. The Kathmandu Valley Development Authority was constituted for a noble purpose. It facilitated road expansion and made many other things easy. But it could not stay true to its goals.
But a body like this won’t be able to manage and coordinate the huge volume of development and service related works of Kathmandu. We need a stronger body that can coordinate with agencies responsible for drinking water, roads, electricity, telecom, etc. In fact, such a body should have been constructed long ago.
You said lack of coordination was a major problem. What keeps our service delivery agencies from working together?
It may sound a little harsh, but rarely does one ministry work in coordination with another ministry, and the same is true of government agencies. Nepal may be the only country where this happens. Private sector and government bodies can easily cooperate. Moreover, government entities have become quite good at service delivery. But it is nearly impossible in Nepal to see one government body cooperate with and contribute to the work of another government body. There is a lot of ego tussle, and a tendency to ignore the works of others by saying that such and such a work does not fall within their jurisdiction.
This is one of the biggest defects of Nepal’s government agencies. They don’t trust each other. For example, if the Department of Road requests the electricity authority to remove electric poles for road expansion, electricity authority may not oblige. If electricity authority requests the department for similar work, the latter does not respond. This is one of the main reasons for the mess we see on Valley’s roads. They do not consider infrastructure works shared responsibility.
You cited non-cooperation as a major factor. But people suspect there is a great deal of foul play.
Even more than that there is deep-seated mistrust and negativism in government bodies. A ministry official thinks: ‘What will I gain by helping this ministry improve its functioning?’ If someone else is doing something important, he thinks: ‘He is the one accruing all the benefits. So why should I help him?’
But this is not the whole story. When the government and the parliamentarians try to establish working coordination among these bodies, we invariably fail. But certain interest groups can do it in no time, perhaps because they can ensure benefits to all parties to a project.
There is a problem with contractors, too. If a piece of work has been contracted out to one company, the company that does not get the contract will start looking for ways to create hurdles in work of the contracted company. Those who work honestly become target of interest groups. This is why some government bodies choose inaction. If you do nothing, you don’t have to face criticism either. Most well-meaning officials then adopt neutrality and ad hocism as their guiding philosophies.
Is this why the prime minister has to involve himself in something as basic as filling up potholes?
Exactly. But can this work be completed in 15 days just because the prime minister asks for it? Government bodies also have their limits. The prime minister wants to in a fortnight’s time clean the mess that has built up over many years. The intent may be good but it will be a drain of state coffers. The roads that you hastily repair will again be messy within a couple of weeks. The roads that are being blacktopped now are going to be dug up again by another authority, sooner or later. So the prime minister should instead be looking to make our institutions more functional and accountable. Perhaps the government needs to create its own companies to maintain greenery and to carry out construction and road maintenance.
As a chairperson of Development Committee, you have issued a number of directives to improve the condition of our roads. Why are your directives ignored?
Some people believe we issue directives only for formality. This is one big misperception. Whenever we see a problem, we in the development committee summon all stakeholders involved in the concerned project, including the prime minister if it is necessary to do so. We remind them of the urgency of the project and inquire about possible hurdles. They share with us their difficulties. Then, we sometimes provide them policy guidelines and alternative plans. We do not ask them to do the impossible. We have a rigorous, open discussion.
If your directives are so realistic, why are they then not implemented?
Because of our weak implementation culture. This also explains why the directives of the prime minister also tend to be ignored. For example, we direct concerned ministers to blacklist the contractors who do not do their jobs well. But this rarely happens. If ever a contractor is blacklisted, it will be the one that does not even exist! There are often attempts, from multiple interest groups, to protect these unscrupulous contractors.
Our government is toothless when it comes to pushing infrastructure development. It cannot provide quality service through its own companies. And the services it buys from others lack quality. For example, if construction companies of Nepal fail to give quality outputs, our development budget, however big, will remain unspent. Our construction industry is unprofessional. There is this dangerous tendency of transferring contracts: Contractor A wins the bidding, he then subcontracts it to B, and B then passes the responsibility to C.
So far we have only talked about the dark side of development works in Nepal. Is there a bright side too?
There is. For instance, through our own initiatives in the development committee, we have been able to achieve a few things. Infrastructure projects and national pride projects have gained momentum. Everything we do is properly documented. We share our documents and recommendations with concerned authorities and constantly remind them to keep us updated. There have been mixed results.
We started a tradition of presenting reports in Parliament of whether development committee directives have been honored. This has inspired optimism. The ministers have reiterated their commitment to complete works on time. So, today, no minister or government official can completely escape responsibility.
But unstable governments don’t help. Ministers and secretaries get changed every six months. Every new minister and secretary blame his predecessor for everything that goes wrong. And when they are replaced, their successors say the same thing about their predecessors.
We were also successful in bringing a provision whereby a company undertaking a public work, and one which has bid low, has to make a substantial security deposit. So if a contractor places a bid of half million rupees for a project costing a million rupees, he will have to deposit, in addition to Rs 50,000 as provided in the old system, Rs 350,000 more to get the contract. This has been done to ensure quality work and to hold the contractor accountable. This will discourage bidders from ‘occupying’ a project or contracting it out to others.
Then we introduced a provision of five years project warranty. If infrastructure in question is damaged before that date, the bidder will be responsible for repair works. New roads and bridges are being built according to these standards. We continuously pressed for the widening of the east-west highway and this is now being done. We constantly drew the attention of concerned officials on expediting north-south highway and this, too, is happening. We raised Melamchi Project issue with priority and it is getting completed soon.
Some good things are happening but they have been shadowed by bad ones. Perhaps our most egregious failure has been on expediting works on utility canals.