One of the biggest factors impeding the progress of the national pride projects could be our inability to spend the budget
It is rare for a project to be completed on time in Nepal, much less so if it is a national pride project (NPP) involving billions of rupees. Such delay has led to not only time overrun but also cost overrun, costing the national exchequer dearly. The cost overrun of the 22 NPPs – some of them have not even started – is estimated at a whopping Rs 283 billion, according to a recent study of the National Planning Commission (NPC). This is a colossal wastage of scarce resources, money that would have helped build two 900-MW hydropower projects like the Arun III and generate about 2,000 MW. Due to the repeated extension of the completion deadline, the country has also lost more than Rs 300 billion in expected outcome. Because of the cost overrun, the average cost per NPP has now surged to Rs 87.6 billion, an increase of Rs 12.9 billion. So, as per the NPC, the total cost of completing the 22 projects has reached 1,927 billion as against the initial projected cost of Rs 1,644 billion. The NPC’s calculation of the cost overrun is only for the NPPs, which are too big to go unnoticed. But what about the smaller projects worth crores only? Are they too small to be noticed by the government although they might number in the hundreds?
Some of the projects have been extremely slow in coming. The highly-touted Melamchi Drinking Water Project, for one, has missed so many completion deadlines that the people of Kathmandu are beginning to suspect if it will come online anytime soon. Its construction started in earnest in 2009 although it was talked about even before the political upheaval of 1990. Of those pride projects being executed, some of them have cost overruns that are double or even triple the initial projected cost. The cost of the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track, being built by the Nepali Army, alone has surged by Rs 103 billion, the highest among all. Some other projects like the Nijgadh International Airport in the Tarai plains to the south of Kathmandu, West Seti and Budhigandaki Hydropower projects have not even started. Once their construction begins, one can rest assured that the projected cost will also prove inadequate.
The slow completion of development projects is starting to get on the nerves of even the Prime Minister, who at the 47th meeting of the National Development Action Committee at the NPC the other day, vented his ire and frustration. Both the time and cost overruns are symptoms, and one must get down to their causes. There are reasons galore, such as natural disasters, like the big earthquake and floods, unscrupulous foreign contractors, faulty procurement laws, poor accountability and, of course, corruption. But there could be a bigger factor impeding the progress of projects – our inability to spend the capital expenditure. It is not without reason that the finance minister has whittled down the size of the budget for the second consecutive year as spending has remained lethargic in the first six months this year also. The federal budget has been trimmed by Rs 147 billion to Rs 1.39 trillion from the Rs 1.53 trillion budget presented in May. Only if we streamline all these factors can we expect better progress of our projects in the days ahead.
Illegal river mining
After much pressure from all walks of life, including environmentalists, representatives of Rautahat District Monitoring Committee carried out an inspection of all the crusher industries and ordered three of them to shut down for illegal operation. Illegal river mining has been a headache for the three tiers of government. Most of the crusher industries are operated by those people who have nexus with powerful politicians and political parties, who give them political protection. The local administration is, in most cases, helpless in taking legal action against them for fear of reprisal from the people in power.
Excessive river mining close to the fragile Chure range has resulted in flash floods and heavy landslides during the monsoon. Environmentalists have warned that the fertile Tarai plains will turn into a desert if tough measures are not taken to conserve the Chure that lies just above the Tarai belt. The government has spent billions of rupees to conserve the Chure range under the President Chure Conservation Programme, which has yielded no tangible results so far. The illegal river mining will continue unabated as long as the local authorities do not get support from the political parties.
A version of this article appears in print on February 14, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.