Construction of the expressway is of national importance in terms of Nepal’s transportation network
The initiative to connect Tarai to the Capital started 10 years ago with the construction of expressway from Nijgadh to Kathmandu. This project was, and is, expected to strategically connect Tarai to Kathmandu both physically and economically boosting national unity and prosperity. However, 10 years later this highly anticipated project remains just that — highly anticipated.
The construction of the expressway is of national importance in terms of the country’s transportation network. It can reduce transportation cost, fuel consumption and the time taken to move goods from one region to the other.
On May 28, inaugurating the construction of the expressway, former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal said, “Fast-track would not only physically and economically connect Tarai with the hilly regions; it will also connect them psychologically. The much-expected dream project is going to come true soon after a long period of time.”
Decade of counterproductive work
In 2010, the government held a global procurement process to select a private developer to develop Kathmandu Tarai Fast-track on the Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) model. Although Nepal had taken its first step in encouraging private sector participation, the effort, unfortunately, attracted little interest. The number of vehicles expected to use the road would not generate the project’s required revenue. In 2012, a second bidding process also failed. Then, in 2014, the government sought to remedy the situation by announcing insurance over the minimum required revenue for the winning bidder. It worked. In September 2014, a third tender attracted credible Indian infrastructure majors. In February 2015, the government invited Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) consortium to participate in additional negotiations with a view to grant a concession.
According to a source from Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport (MoPIT), the proposal of the Indian company that had negotiated to construct Fast-track in BOT model, would put financial burden on the government, and the ministry could not take a decision on a matter that would carry such consequences.
Earlier, former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala-led government prepared to hand over the expressway to the Indian company after it submitted a Detailed Project Report (DPR) which drew widespread criticisms. The criticisms had compelled the then government to put the project on hold. The decision of the ministry to scrap all agreements with the Indian consortium came in the wake of widespread pressure and instruction from parliamentary committees.
After issuing a stay order to Koirala-led government against awarding the project to the Indian developer in 2015, the Supreme Court later removed the stay order stating that it did not need to speak on the issue after the succeeding KP Oli-led government decided to develop the project on its own. Earlier, the government had cancelled the deal with the Indian firm and decided to construct the 76-km fast-track using domestic resources. On November 21, 2016, the MoPIT decided to terminate all agreements and contracts that the government had signed with the Indian consortium led by Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) regarding the development of Kathmandu-Tarai Fast-track project.
The former government led by Oli had allocated Rs 10 billion for the project in the fiscal year 2016/17. But the budget has not been spent because of the delay in finalising project development and financing modality. Though the earlier estimated cost was lower, the Indian company estimated the cost at around Rs 111 billion.
According to National Planning Commission, the project which was expected to start in 2011 lasting up to 2018 has seen only 7.8 per cent completion.
The government was to allocate around Rs 20 billion every year for up to five years.
NA to take over
After several failed attempts to give flight to the fast-track project in the last 10 years, MoPIT handed over the responsibility to Nepal Army (NA) on March 30. On May 4, the government gave its final approval to give the responsibility of the fast-track project to NA by mobilising domestic resources for construction and declared the project a national pride project.
Spokesperson of MoPIT, Rajendra Raj Sharma said that the Ministry after corresponding with the Ministry of Defence asked NA to take over the project, “Now we have handed over the responsibility of the fast-track project over to the NA,” he said.
It is said that the function of the NA is beyond the jurisdiction of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) of Nepal. Previously in 2011, NA had, in fact, started working on the fast-track project with a budget of Rs 94 crores. However, frequent landslides and no maintenance obstructed the road and vehicles altogether stopped using the route. Although this time around the NA is expected to complete the project on time, there are still doubts whether it would use qualitative measures while constructing the fast-track road, given the poor job it had done previously on the same route.
Also, though the Constitution of Nepal states that the NA can perform development activities in the country it is yet to be seen how effective their work really will be.
Fast-track to Expressway
Under Secretary of Ministry of Defence (MoD), Ishwor Prasad Pandey said, “The cabinet has decided to make the expressway to connect Tarai with Kathmandu. Fast-track in true sense of the word only means clearance of the track whereas calling it an expressway gives a deeper meaning to the project.”
Expressway refers to controlled-access highway, the highest-grade type of highway with access ramps, lane dividers et cetera for high-speed traffic. According to MoPIT, the 76-km long express road will have four wide lanes. The estimated cost of the road is about Rs 1 billion. 5,000 vehicles are expected to be using this route daily after completion.
Upcoming work plan
Although the NA has been given the responsibility to complete the project, it is still in its draft phase, sketching work plans and policy for the project. Pandey informed THT Perspectives that the government has formed a high level monitoring committee and directed the committee to prepare a draft for the construction of the expressway. He said, “Firstly, NA will sketch the draft of the plan for the project wherein time and cost limitation will be estimated.”
About two years ago, IL&FS had submitted its DPR to the government. NA officials said that it is still uncertain whether the NA will use the same DPR or make another DPR for the project.
A version of this article appears in print on June 11, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.