Federal government continues handling local roads and bridge projectsRoad officials say local governments still don’t have capacity to implement such projects.
The federal government is going to build over 1,400 local roads and around 1,100 local bridges in the fiscal year 2021-22, although the constitution requires it to handle only the strategic road network.
The Department of Roads had announced a plan to hand over these projects to the provincial and local governments in the last three years. However, citing practical difficulties in managing the projects which were contracted out by the road department, the federal government has decided to hand over the projects to the provincial and local governments only after they are completed.
Moreover, the federal government has also increased the list of local road projects to be implemented by the department by a third.
According to the Annual Programme 2021-22 unveiled by the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, a total of 1,410 such road projects will be implemented by the department in the next fiscal year starting mid-July. In the current fiscal year, there are 950 such road projects being implemented by the department.
These projects are being implemented under two programmes—Road Infrastructure Development Programme and the Tarai-Madhes Road Infrastructure Special Programme. For the next fiscal year, 793 roads have been listed under the Road Infrastructure Development Programme and 617 under the Tarai Madhes Road Infrastructure Special Programme.
“Most of these roads were selected based on political interest,” said Shiva Prasad Nepal, spokesperson for the department. “Even though we wanted to exit from these projects as they don’t fall under our jurisdiction, we are forced to implement them as the government has given us the responsibility.”
Nepal said that hardly any of these projects were planned by the department but they had to implement them as political leaders and various social and community groups have interests in them.
These projects are likely to remain under the federal government for a prolonged time as it will take time to complete them with the small funds that the government has allocated for them.
Even though the government increased the number of local road projects by a third, it has allocated less budget for the next fiscal year than in the current fiscal year, leading to a fragmentation of the available budget. Department officials say fragmentation of the budget does not yield the desired results as hardly any work can be completed with inadequate funds.
According to the Physical Infrastructure Ministry, a total of Rs3.5 billion has been allocated for the 1,410 local road projects for the next fiscal year. The government had allocated Rs3.79 billion for 950 such projects in the current fiscal year. This shows the budget for each road project has been slashed to Rs2.4 million for the next fiscal year from Rs4 million in the current fiscal year.
Critics say the government’s move to continue keeping the local road projects under the central government undermines federalism.
“Either the government had to hand these projects over to provincial or local governments or it should at least not have added new projects if it was serious about implementing federalism,” said Khim Lal Devkota, a National Assembly member and expert on federalism.
He argues that the local road projects to be implemented by the federal government were added for vested political gains. “Many pet projects were added with the aim of attracting votes in the upcoming elections,” said Devkota, who defeated then incumbent Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa as a rebel candidate. “It is a part of the wider budget which has been introduced with elections in mind.”
The government on May 29 presented the national budget. Many believe the programmes in the budget are aimed at influencing the parliamentary elections.
President Bidya Devi Bhandari on May 21 dissolved the House of Representatives for the second time and announced new snap polls for November 12 and 19 on the recommendation of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. The House dissolution move has been challenged at the Supreme Court.
Not only road projects, the federal government is also handling 1,084 local road bridges, which should have been implemented by the provincial or local governments as per the constitution.
The government has allocated as low as Rs1 million for some of the bridge projects. Department officials say the bridge projects have been allocated less budget as a majority of them are meant for either preparing designs or giving completion.
Officials at the department say even though they didn’t want to implement the provincial and local road and bridge projects, they were forced to do so because the federal government has given them the responsibility.
“We cannot say no to the government’s instructions even though these small projects should not have come under our jurisdiction as per the constitution,” said Arjun Jung Thapa, director general at the road department.
Thapa added that the department has been forced to implement most of the road and bridge projects as the sub-national governments have yet to develop capacity to implement such projects.
“Once they are capable, we are ready to hand over the projects to them,” he said.
According to Deepak Bhattarai, spokesperson for the Physical Infrastructure Ministry, despite efforts to hand over most of the projects to local and provincial governments in the past, many sub-national governments didn’t want to take over due to difficulty to handle contract management.
“As they lacked necessary human resources to handle the contracts, they didn’t want to take over the projects,” he said.
According to Thapa, provincial and local governments are yet to become fully capable of implementing especially the bridge projects because of the complicated technology involved.
Even though the federal government initially announced to provide specialised staffers to the provincial and local governments, almost all employees of the road department continue to remain under the federal government.
However, department officials say that the department itself has a shortage of human resources and could not agree to the departure of its employees to provincial and local governments.