Fast-Track Road in the Slow Lane

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Fast-Track Road in the Slow Lane

Designated as a "national pride project", the Kathmandu-Tarai/Madhesh Fast-Track Road, which intends to connect Kathmandu with the Terai plains, has transformed into what is now deemed a “project of national shame". The slow pace of the project, which is being implemented by the Nepal Army, has highlighted challenges that infrastructure projects grapple with due to governmental hurdles while construction entrepreneurs bear the brunt of blame.

Testifying before the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the House of Representatives on on December 20, Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Prabhu Ram Sharma clearly stated that the expressway would remain incomplete, even with a 2-3 year extension beyond the existing deadline of April 2027 unless a number of existing laws and regulations are revised.

The progress report of the project paints a disheartening picture. It has achieved less than one-third physical progress although it has already been six years since construction commenced. If a powerful institution like the Nepal Army struggles to achieve significant progress, we should sympathise with other construction entrepreneurs who face similar obstacles but are on the receiving end of unwarranted criticism for slow work progress. The major problems highlighted by CoAS Sharma are indeed intriguing. Contracts for five out of the 13 packages of the fast-track project are yet to be awarded due to legal complexities. The army has also not received clearance to fell trees on some sections. Furthermore, the legal procedures for land acquisition are also not practical. Although these are persistent challenges echoed not only by the army but also by other construction entrepreneurs and power producers, they continue to be disregarded. Despite all this, some private sector projects manage to conclude within the stipulated time frame or even with a slight delay which is quite commendable.

The core issue underlying the fast-track project is the practice of turning the army into a business entity i.e. a construction work contractor. While some countries involve their military in construction tasks related to national defence, such as border area roads in India, the fast-track road is in no way related to national defence. If this project is argued to be related to national defence, it opens the door for any project, regardless of scale, to be deemed similarly essential for national defence. CoAS Sharma rightfully pointed out that the army did not ask for the project, it was imposed on them by political leadership. That is why he squarely placed the blame on the political leadership for the project delays. It is worth recalling that the decision to assign the project to the army stemmed from some eccentric nationalist fervour to prevent an Indian company, which wanted a minimum revenue guaranteed, from implementing the project under the Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangement. Instead of exploring measures to mitigate potential liabilities under the minimum revenue guarantee scheme, the government abruptly terminated discussions with the foreign consortium. Had the project advanced as initially envisioned, it could have significantly mitigated the challenges posed by the ongoing economic slowdown. The delay has resulted in substantial cost overruns, and the anticipated economic benefits are now delayed.

Mistakes are valuable lessons, but the repetition of errors is not an effective approach to learning. Nepal has learnt similar lessons in projects like Melamchi and Arun III. But the learning from these experiences is not being effectively applied to new projects. 

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