Transport network The road to prosperity

In order to truly address the developmental needs of new Nepal, the 5428 km strategic road networks constructed over the last 50 years also needs to be extended. This is required to link remote districts, meet the new administrative and service delivery requirements of the proposed federal structure, facilitate transit between India and China, and promote economic development. The major parties, as manifested in their election manifestos, have also reached a consensus on the construction of national level transport networks.

For instance, the major three political parties have agreed on the plan to construct the Mid-hill Highway. This highway was also prioritised by the Interim Plan. Out of a total of 1774 km of the Mid-Hill Highway, nearly 1100 km has already been constructed. This highway will help integrate the proposed federal states and their headquarters which will be instrumental in delivering basic services to people living in the mid hills. The government has allocated Rs. 350 million ($4.6 million) in the budget for the construction of 180 km long Mid-hill highway.

Major political parties have also emphasised the need for construction of Kathmandu - Tarai Fast Track. The proposed road will be 150 km shorter than the existing Birgunj- Narayanghat-Kathmandu route which will save around 5 hours of travelling time. Consequently, the transport costs will reduce significantly. The Maoists and CPN-UML have emphasised the North-South transit corridors. Also roads connecting district headquarters are already in different stages of construction.

Development of the transport networks must be based on a clear development vision. The above road proposals will help prepare the framework for the overall development of the country. Construction of these new links will generate a huge amount of employment opportunities, which is essential in the post conflict situation. However, the proposals do not seem to have given potential spatial development of the country much significance. With the federal structure, people may not be required to come to Kathmandu for education and employment. The proposed outer ring road may, therefore, not be a high priority. Before considering any investment, it will be worthwhile to assess the transport demand. Nepal has been paying a heavy cost for not considering the development of the urban points located at the highway intersections. A majority of the Mahendra Highway nodal points were not considered as service delivery centres. For example Pathlaiya, Gorusinghe and Atariya are located near the jungles, while other centres such as Butwal, and Bharatpur developed spontaneously without government’s conscious efforts.

On the other hand, the problem of the Right of Way (RoW) is emerging seriously. The Department of Roads stipulates the criteria of 50 m width for the national highways, 30 m for the feeder roads, 20 m for district roads and 10 m for village roads. However, more than 50 per cent of national highways do not seem to follow that rule. The government, in many instances, has failed to acquire enough land for lack of sufficient resources. Moreover, determination of land compensation is difficult as people always demand maximum possible amount. If this issue of RoW is not resolved, it will almost be impossible to acquire sufficient land for the road expansion.

Though political parties have almost agreed on the expansion of road networks, some issues require immediate attention. The structure of the population centres may change with the introduction of the federal structure. If the population growth rate in Kathmandu decreases, the relevance of the outer ring road will be questionable. Nepal also needs to engage with India and China for taking forward the proposal of becoming a key transit route between these two regional powers. Proper demand-driven development of urban centres is another dimension which needs to be considered in conjunction with the development of road networks. In particular, urban centre development needs to ensure good linkages to the hinterlands to act as drivers of rural development.

The present practice of constructing roads without sufficient width acts to prevent future expansion. Therefore the government has to acquire the required land. However, such acquisition should be simple and straight forward. The new constitution has to empower the state to take over land without undergoing a complicated procedure, but ensuring that people are fairly compensated. Land along the road can also be used for livelihood for the poorest of the poor groups. They can be allowed to grow road friendly plants such as bamboo, Drepanostachyum Intermedium (Nigalo), Rabus elipticus (Ainselu), Elettaria cardomomum (Alainchi) etc. This provision will not only protect road assets but also will be a very good source of livelihood for the poor communities and excluded groups.

Dr Shrestha is infrastructure advisor, DFID