Finished at lastConstruction delays and project extensions have become all too common.
The 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project, Nepal’s largest hydropower station, has finally come online with one of its six 76-megawatt units generating power. Once the plant starts churning out energy at full capacity, we will officially become a power surplus country during the wet season, capable of exporting electricity. The project will also save billions by cutting the import of electricity from India in the dry season. But for a coveted project, the last 10 years saw massive cost and time overruns. From the initial project cost of Rs35 billion (without interest), the project’s cost has now reached Rs53 billion (without interest). The project completion deadline in mid-July 2016 was also affected by the 2015 earthquakes, which destroyed the access road to the construction site, followed by technical setbacks of contractors. The revised deadline of mid-June last year was disrupted by the pandemic. And last month, there were concerns after landslides near the Nepal-China border blocked the Rongsi stream, a tributary of the Tamakoshi River.
For decades, a story that has run parallel with prolonged political instability in Nepal is the delays in development projects that have cost the country billions. Development projects are mired in controversy, corruption and conflict, and have subsequently affected project deadlines and financial planning. For instance, Nepal’s largest water supply project, the elusive Melamchi Water Tunnel project, took almost two decades since its inception to finally supply water to Kathmandu Valley earlier this year in March. The project was rife with political interference, project mismanagement, corruption and extortion scandals. So much so that Melamchi ko paani became a public metaphor for something unattainable. Multiple deadlines were set, pushing the project cost to a whopping Rs31 billion. Following the disastrous flash flood last month at Melamchi, the project’s future is uncertain once again.
Across the country, infrastructure development sites, from roads to bridges and hospitals that bear a deserted look, have a similar story. Like broken election promises and bloated targets, construction delays and project extensions have become all too common. At the same time, the bidders and contractors enjoy impunity at the cost of national progress. According to a 2019 report by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, 1,848 development projects worth Rs118 billion are in limbo, of which 1,032 projects have neither been terminated nor extended. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that these delays in the construction sector have unwelcome effects on the country’s economic output, and ward off potential investors for lack of transparency and business environment. And given the pandemic, it is all too likely that there will be more delays in development projects due to labour shortages and costlier construction materials, among other crucial policy and financial shortcomings.
For the administration that repeatedly sells big promises on jobs and prosperity, it is hardly accountable for managing and ensuring that the projects meet their deadlines and within the allocated budget. It has also failed to take necessary action to address the issues that cause delays, thereby contributing to stagnation. While there is no dearth of policy interventions to assess contractors, ongoing projects and their progress, it is evident that the government’s aloofness stems from its inability to plan and foresee the outcome. At the same time, it beats the drum of a populist agenda and rushes to lay foundation stones for projects without proper planning and budgetary resources. Our progress as a nation depends on sustainable infrastructure development. The government has to plan and implement better to attain the goals instead of floating ambitious growth rates and projects while consistently failing to spend wisely. If we fail to take stock of the situation, project delays will only put additional pressure on the economy, and we will have to face losses.