Roads to nowhereThe government’s planning of major traffic infrastructure within the Valley shows how careless its plans are.
In the budget speech for the fiscal year 2020-21, the government announced plans for a major traffic infrastructure project. The plan, it seems, is to revive old ideas that have failed to materialise in the past. Some of these include flyovers and underpasses along the Tinkune-Jadibuti road, an underpass at the New Baneshwor junction and an alternative road to connect Tripureshwor and Maitighar. Given the current scenario, where Covid-19 and lockdowns associated with the pandemic are halting economic growth throughout the world, it is a wonder if the government will be able to manage to complete the infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline. It will certainly not be able to complete these new ones that do not even have detailed project reports drawn up. Instead of focusing on unimplementable ideas—which may not even be a good way of tackling the growing traffic problem—the government must divert all resources at hand into the health, education and pandemic response sectors.
How the federal government arrived at flyovers and underpasses is a mystery—particularly when there are so many other areas that need immediate attention. The education sector, for example, has been underfunded for years now. In fact, investment in public education is so low that the government has failed its constitutional obligation to provide all with free schooling until grade 12. The health sector, another area severely underfunded for years, may have an additional Rs20 billion-plus for the next fiscal, but it is sure to fall short, with much of the extra funds going into new intensive care and other specialised facilities. Moreover, even in construction, there is a backlog of infrastructure damaged by the 2015 earthquake that need rebuilding or strengthening. By the reconstruction authorities’ own estimates, only about 68.5 percent of the work outlined in the 2016 plan—worth Rs836 billion—has been completed. The incomplete list includes over 1,000 school buildings.
Indeed, a major hurdle that this plan faces is that construction projects in Nepal are always delayed. The Narayanghat-Mugling road project is an example of an essential development—being a road that carries 90 percent of Nepal’s total trade traffic—that went through multiple significant delays and cost overruns. The long-awaited Melamchi Water Supply Project is another infamous construction mired in delays; it remains incomplete even today. To plan for a major new project while others are yet to be completed, that too at a time when the economy needs the timely implementation of large developments, shows how careless the government’s planning has been.
But that is not the only problem with this road expansion project. Taking off during Baburam Bhattarai’s tenure as prime minister in 2011, road expansion and lane development has been never-ending and cyclical. Yet, this has only increased room for more cars and motorised two-wheelers to add to the traffic nightmare. As if all of this was not enough, the mass adoption of fossil fuel-powered vehicles has caused Kathmandu to become one the most polluted cities in the world. What’s more, the use of motorcycles and scooters in a haphazard way, competing to find space between cars, has created a massive traffic burden. For years, the solution to the ever-growing problem has been to build bigger and more complex roads—without a thought given to alternative solutions.
The concept of urbanisation as revolving around cars, thought to be a universal truth, has already begun to be challenged globally. Yet, in a country like Nepal, problems associated with the mass use of private vehicles are still growing. Instead of feeding plans for bigger and crazier roads that will only accommodate more polluting vehicles, the government must partner with local governments to rethink how roads are utilised. Lalitpur’s visions of a cycle city, where the traditional urban mobility pyramid is inverted, was a step in the right direction; although that too was not implemented well. Similarly, Sajha’s plan—which the Bagmati provincial government will now undertake on its own—of introducing electric buses to encourage people to give up using private vehicles and to reduce pollution, is also a positive development.
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