The Postal Highway can bring about socio-economic changes in the Tarai region should it complete in time

Indian Ambassador to Nepal Vinay Mohan Kwatra handed over the Tarai roads built with Indian grant assistance of Rs 8 billion to Minister of Physical Infrastructure and Transport Basant Kumar Nembang at a virtual event in the capital on Wednesday. Under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) reached between Nepal and India in 2016 related to strengthening road infrastructure in the Tarai region of Nepal, Nepal had identified 10 priority roads, also known as the Postal Highway, to be built with India's funding.

These roads connect the major towns located on the East-West Highway with the border with India. These 10 roads are located in the seven border districts of Provinces 1, 2 and Lumbini, and provide smooth travel experience to around 8 million people. Of the 305kms of roads to be built under the MoU, 270kms, which were completed recently, were handed over to Nepal. These roads were built under 'Government of India funding and Government of Nepal implementation modality'. For contractual purposes, the 10 roads were divided into 14 packages. National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation, an Indian government undertaking, had worked as the project management consultant.

In its statement, the Indian Embassy said the Tarai roads project funded by India had helped strengthen road infrastructure in the Tarai region of Nepal and further enhanced people-to-people relations between the border areas of the two countries. Completion of these roads also complement other major border infrastructure developed by India in Nepal, such as the Integrated Check Posts at Birgunj and Biratnagar and cross-border railway lines. The cross border railway line between Jaynagar in India and Kurtha in Nepal, funded by India, has also been completed.

However, Nepal has not been able to operate the railway due to lack of laws and regulations related to its operation.

Out of the total 14 packages, one of the packages related to the Birgunj-Thori section was awarded to Pappu Construction, a blacklisted construction firm that has left many other contracts incomplete. This section has yet to be completed. Although it has already been 12 years since the works on the Postal Highway started, only around 60 per cent of the work has been completed so far. The rest of the work should be completed within two years, which seems quite impossible. The total length of the Postal Highway is 1,857 km, out of which a total of 975 km stretches east to west, covering 21 Tarai districts. Out of the total length of the highway, only 650 km has been blacktopped and a total of 250 bridges have yet to be built. Work on some sections of the highway that cross the national parks and wildlife reserves has not started yet as the concerned government authority has not given approval for it. The initial cost of the project was estimated at Rs 47 billion. But the revised cost estimate stands at around Rs 65 billion. The Government of Nepal has listed the Postal Highway as one of the 21 national pride projects with the aim of completing it in time. But sad to say is that the project has been delayed by so many years due to inadequate budget allocation by the government. This project can bring about socio-economic changes in the Tarai region should it complete in time.

Work for women

The government has approved the 'Standard for Operation of Livelihood Improvement Programme 2021'aimed at empowering poor and single women through employment opportunities in agriculture and non-agriculture sectors. It is evident that women's empowerment does not happen simply by provisioning rights in the constitution. At the end of the day, it is economic opportunities that will decide whether they and their families will continue to remain economically and socially backward. The livelihood improvement programme is to be implemented in 55 districts that lag behind in Nepal's HDI.

The beneficiary women will undergo skills training in agriculture and livestock, tourism and non-agriculture sectors like weaving, hosiery, bakery, plumbing and beauty parlours. Once the beneficiaries have the needed skills, they will receive grants to establish and operate a business. Microfinance institutions have shown how women make the most out of even small loans in starting a small business or a kitchen garden or raising goats and poultry while supporting their children's education. With added skills and seed money, the women beneficiaries could contribute greatly to eradicating poverty in the country.

A version of this article appears in the print on April 2, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.