Most tunnel road projects get budget to satisfy politicians’ whims, officials sayMajority of about two dozen tunnels proposed around the country are on drawing board.
The government has announced plans to build nearly two dozen tunnel roads in the country after the start of the first tunnel project at Nagdhunga, the major entrypoint to Kathmandu.
Officials at the Road Department however said that the majority of them were included in the budgetary programme because of political pressure.
Besides Nagdhunga, the government has allocated a budget for various tunnel projects, a flyover, an underpass and supervision of some projects whose combined number is 23, according to the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport.
Budgetary allocation was made under the government’s Tunnel Road Development Programme for the fiscal year 2023-24. Gwarko-Satdobato-Ekantakuna flyover and New Baneshwar underpass plans have also received budgetary allocation.
The majority of these tunnels and related projects are in the study phase, with the government allocating Rs1.94 billion for them, according to the ministry. The Nagdhunga-Naubise tunnel is being built as a separate project. The government has allocated Rs5.12 billion for this in the budget for the next fiscal year, according to the finance ministry.
“Except for a few of the proposed tunnels, the majority were included to serve political interests,” said Sushil Babu Dhakal, director general of the Department of Roads. He, however, didn’t specify which projects had come under political influence.
Department officials say that inclusion in the budget is no guarantee that all of them will be built. Studies are essential to show the projects are feasible technically and financially, said Dhakal.
Given the high cost, the government is incapable of financing all the proposed tunnel roads, Dhakal said.
“It is true that tunnel roads help reduce travel time and people benefit but there are also questions if all of them should be built because of the high costs involved.”
Department officials said that among all the under-construction and proposed projects, Nagdhunga tunnel road, Tokha-Chhahare and Siddhababa tunnel roads have received greater priority in the next fiscal year.
According to the physical infrastructure ministry, Tokha-Chhahare tunnel road has received Rs1.25 billion out of the total 1.94 billion under the Tunnel Road Development Programme. The budget was allocated for study and construction of the project next year.
However, the detailed project report (DPR) and the environment impact assessment (EIA) reports for the Tokha-Chhahare road are yet to be prepared.
Presenting the budget, Finance Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat said the budget has been allocated for the project to start construction after completing the DPR and the EIA.
Officials doubt if the construction could begin next fiscal year. “There is a high possibility that budgetary resources allocated for the project will not be spent in the next fiscal year,” said another road department official.
In October 2019, Nepal and China signed a memorandum of understanding to build two stretches of the road, which connects Kathmandu and Rasuwagadhi.
The Chinese side had conducted a pre-feasibility study after the MoU was signed, officials said. There are doubts if the project would go into implementation next fiscal year with preparatory works incomplete.
Mentioning projects in the budget without carrying out detailed feasibility studies is said to be the reason the government’s capital spending always remains poor.
Siddhababa Tunnel Road Project, whose construction has also begun, has received a Rs450 million budget. The finance minister said its construction would also be expedited in the new fiscal year.
Dharan Leuti Tunnel Road has received Rs5 million. “Construction has yet to begin,” said Dhakal.
Officials at the department said that Dharan Leuti Tunnel is important to shorten the road distance. “But it is difficult to build it with domestic resources,” said Bijaya Joshi, chief of the foreign aid implementation division at the road department. “Siddhababa Tunnel road will not significantly cut the road distance, but it is important because landslides regularly block the road there.”
Most important of all tunnel projects is the one through Nagdhunga-Naubise, according to officials. In October 2019, the then prime minister KP Sharma Oli inaugurated the project and construction began in early 2020.
The project was supposed to be completed in three and a half years from the date of implementation. But it bore the brunt of Covid pandemic followed by a shortage of construction materials a few months ago.
As of June 18, 85.7 percent of the tunnel work has been completed while 35.9 percent of concrete lining work in the main tunnel is over, according to the Nagdhunga Tunnel project. Likewise, 11 out of 12 structures have also been completed, it said.
Overall physical progress of the project stands at 55.13 percent, according to the progress report. “We hope to complete the tunnel excavation work by August,” said Joshi.
While the Nagdhunga Tunnel Project was envisioned to reduce traffic congestion at the gateway to Kathmandu, most other projects were proposed by lawmakers to serve political interests, officials said.
“A small budget has been allocated to study the feasibility of the proposed tunnel roads,” said Joshi. “It does not mean that all will be feasible, but a study will help bring potential investors.”Allocations for proposed tunnel roads