Driving by Durbar Marg recently has been a treat for my sore eyes. Amidst the ever present cloud of dust and array of battered railings and lampposts, the new towering handsome silver lights are a real breath of fresh air. When conversations ensued about the lighting and beautification of the street, I for one did not hesitate to praise Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s efforts, which are in-fact truly brilliant. However, when I read about the Asian Development Bank’s Rs.380 million contribution to this project in a national daily, the million dollar question (literally!) that came to my mind was: Is it worth it?
Firstly, the cost of this project is too high for simply lighting Kathmandu streets relative to the cost of other major infrastructure projects that are in a desperate need for funding. Durbar Marg, already one of the poshest areas in the country, has a plethora of high-end shops and restaurants that attract mostly wealthy youngsters and mid-aged people. Undoubtedly the additional 30 solar lights, pavements and benches will make a pleasant visiting experience of the street. However, spending Rs.11.7 million in installation alone and an additional Rs. 7.3 million in maintenance each year seems simply too extravagant for a country that faces 84 hours of power cuts per week. To make matters worse, KMC plans to install additional 600 lights in major city areas like New Baneshwor, Swayambhu, Basantapur, Singha Durbar, Tripureshwore and Thapathali using the ADB funds.
Secondly, the way this entire project was completed seems extremely dubious and points a big finger towards the financial gain of few special interest groups. At the onset of this project, the original plan was to share the costs between KMC and public and consumer committees. However, that plan failed when the public and consumer committees showed no particular interest in investing in this project. The project commenced anyways. The fact that this project was planned, funded and completed despite little to no interest from key stakeholders raises a major red flag regarding the true intention behind this project. One argument we keep hearing at attempts to justify this project is that, this project will contribute substantial financial benefits to the Durbarmarg area. In a statement by the Durbar Marg Development Board president, he claimed that the Durbar Marg area will be witnessing additional business transactions of over Rs. 100 million per year due to two hours of extended business hours by 150 businesses. These additional operational hours will in turn help the government collect an extra Rs. 20 million VAT. They also plan on raising money by advertising on electric boards operated by these lights. While these facts and figures do look alluring, their accuracy is seriously questionable. Only time will tell.
In conclusion, infrastructure development using sustainable energy sources is a brilliant idea and undoubtedly an indispensable variable in the modern economic growth equation. However, I question the marginal benefit of providing solar powered street lights to a segment of Nepali population that is already well off relative to the rest of the country. At a moment when Nepal lacks the most basic infrastructures and when majority of its population are living in abject poverty, providing solar fueled street lights to people looking to buy TAG Heuer watches after their KFC dinner is plain silly. There are still villages where students are forced to cross rivers using life-threatening ropeways (tuin) just to go to school, and then there are villages where there are no schools. We ourselves face excruciating hours of load shedding every single day, and people have to wake at the crack of dawn just to get a bucket of water. Efficient resource allocation is the key for development, and I believe that the ADB funds would be a lot more valuable in building bridges, schools or hydroelectric plants than installing pretty lights. We have to set our priorities straight. With massive opportunity costs and alternative solutions as cheap as maintaining the existing electric poles and bulbs, the Kathmandu Ujyalo Karyakram is a luxury we can’t afford. Besides, I’m sure everyone would rather have a group of kids get to school safely than make their own strolls in the roads a tad bit easier on the eyes!
P.S. I would like to thank Mr. Sajal Man Shrestha for his invaluable insights and support, as well as for helping me edit this article.