फेरि सडक खन्यो बा ! Absence of basic planning and accountability jeopardize road expansion projects in Nepal

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Image Source: The Himalayan Times

Image Source: The Himalayan Times

No sooner have you been able to enjoy the newly pitched roads, than someone without fail comes and digs them up again. Ever wondered why these freshly built roads are dug up and left open or patched up in sorry attempts, a few months or even weeks after its construction?  Sometimes water pipes, sometimes sewage, sometimes electricity; whatever the reason may be the end result always the same: you are back to square one driving through potholes all day long.  Annoyed, frustrated and just plain curious I decided to dig into this with the pre-conceived idea that there must be some planning and co-ordination errors. What I did not expect to find was ZERO planning/ co-ordination among any of the concerned departments, none whatsoever.

So what happens? Department of Roads (DOR) builds a certain road and in a few weeks or months some other department comes along and digs up that road for one of their activities. DOR now doesn’t have the money or resources to go back and make that road since its job in that area is already done. What we are left with then are uneven roads, traffic problems, reduced lifespan of our vehicles, increased fuel spending, justification for absurd amounts of vehicle taxes and shamelessly wasted resources. DOR, Department of Water Supply and Sewage, Telecommunications Department, Department of Electricity Development all have their individual plans and work accordingly with no concern over what the other departments might be doing. If that means undermining some other departments’ work, causing discomfort to the citizens or wasting taxpayers’ money, so be it.  It saddens me to see how haphazardly all these departments function and what a mess the system has become. What then is the National Planning Commission doing amidst all this chaos? Anything but putting the plan in planning (at least in this case)! The solution is simple: plan well so that works related to drainage or water pipes and telephone or electricity lines are completed in a certain area before the road is constructed. It isn’t rocket science to figure out that one simple common plan, communication flow or any type of co-ordination between these concerned departments would make a huge difference.

I find it difficult to believe that our bureaucrats didn’t see the blatant need for co-ordination. After all, if it were their own houses they were planning to build, would the execution be as sloppy and wasteful? Be it clashing egos, ignorance, rent-seeking opportunities or just plain indifference; turning a blind-eye to this issue has served their personal interests better and so things have carried on the way they have. Conversation with a DOR official revealed that in Nepal’s 50 years of road building history, no ground research has ever been conducted. Delays occurring due to inefficient contractors are overlooked in the fear that the contractor might have political ties and no one wants to rock the boat. There is no system of quality management and if the roads aren’t built to the required standards no one is penalized or held accountable. Although it is an unacceptable excuse; we cannot discredit the fact that there are problems when it comes to the budget. There is a huge time lag between when the budget is announced and when the money actually reaches the departments for development projects. This coupled with the monsoon season gives departments very less time to execute their intra-department plans (which are usually short term and not very well planned either). Additionally, since the performance of the departments depend on whether or not they have worked to finish their allocated budgets on time; there is additional pressure to finish their targets. This method of performance evaluation is very problematic. Firstly, there is no incentive for the officials to be innovative or effective. Secondly, the major end goal of any government department: serving the citizens and making their lives easier, is widely side lined.

It is high time to make good governance a reality in Nepal. Its absence will inevitably wither any noble project that comes along, as is happening with the road expansion project.  Proper quality management and accountability (both largely lacking in our government agencies) are indispensable factors for the development of any entity, be it an institution or the nation as a whole. Time is now for national heroes to emerge, who can put their self-interests aside for just a while and think in terms of the larger good. As wishful as it might be, I would like to hope that we do have at least some leaders who wish to see not only their prosperous selves, but also a prosperous nation!