After Nepal adopted federalism in 2015, it was expected that the country would see a drastic change in its infrastructures–with the coordinated efforts of all three tiers of the government. But expectations were not met and are still not met.
There have been no coordinated efforts to make federalism fully functional. The coordination between local and provincial governments, and between local and federal governments is inadequate in terms of planning and implementation.
When it comes to infrastructure development, connectivity, especially roadways, is what comes to the mind of governments and even the general public. From the federal to local levels, a huge chunk of the budget has been allocated for constructing and upgrading roadways, but all in a haphazard way.
A vision for new human resettlement
Nepal’s Tarai region and cities are massively overcrowded. Yet, people are still migrating to cities where infrastructures, though haphazardly, are already built. To stop domestic migration, all the three tiers of government must develop infrastructures to discourage people in the rural areas from migrating to the cities.
I have been to many countries, and I have seen governments developing human settlements with all the infrastructures. This has helped people enjoy all the services in their hometowns.
A master plan of 50-60 years must be developed to attract businesses and investors to invest in new settlement areas.
The pressing priority for Nepal is to develop new settlements. If we go to the hills, two houses are at a distance of a kilometer in many places. In such a situation, where does the government build schools? A kilometer-long telephone network can connect only a few telephones. A huge investment is required for developing any new infrastructure. So, we must think out of the box to create new human settlements, with all facilities that stop migration.
First, we must get rid of the misconception that infrastructure development is just about connectivity. We must focus on creating new settlements in the rural areas. We have to make plans for the next 50 years. Tarai is massively overcrowded. The nearby areas are also overcrowded. The government should identify areas that can have settlements of up to five thousand people, fifty thousand people, one lakh people, and more.
The question is how to create such massive human settlements. In the first phase, the government must have a multidisciplinary team that includes engineers, geologists, masons, health professionals, researchers, and ace students from engineering campuses, among others. The government can also fund engineering campuses to conduct their research and advocate projects to identify areas for new settlements. Once a suitable area is identified, a team of senior engineers and experts can finalize the area before the government designs projects in those areas.
Unlike the already-disorganized urbanized cities like Kathmandu, these areas will have planning designs that meet the needs of communities. These areas can be identified near Mid Hill Highway, Postal Highway, Madan Bhandari Highway, Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, Mahakali Corridor, Karnali Corridor, Koshi Corridor, and Kaligandaki Corridor.
The government, itself, should design residential areas, commercial areas, industrial areas, and livestock and farming areas. The commercial and industrial areas should be far from the residential areas.
When it comes to connectivity in these areas, everything from optical fiber, drainage, and electricity lines to drinking water should be set up while constructing roadways. This integrated infrastructure model will help the government create a proper settlement and stop people from migrating to the Tarai region. But if there are no services for the people, infrastructure alone will not stop people from migrating. The Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), after the 2015 earthquakes, built an integrated settlement in Laprak of Gorkha district but people didn’t want to live there.
A master plan of 50-60 years must be developed to attract businesses and investors to invest in new settlement areas. The agricultural production in Tarai, an agricultural hub, is declining due to massive migration in the region. A potent master plan will also improve agricultural production. Also, when designing roadways and new settlements, we should not destroy agricultural lands.
The Financing Model
Once the master plan is ready, we should invite the private sector, donors, and foreign countries for investment. There can be different models for financing the projects. The best can be accepting foreign grants. The private sector in Nepal can also invest in the project. The government itself can also build infrastructures under this mega project with its own resources.
The government, with the help of the private sector, can construct tollways. In roadways, ‘everything’ should be constructed by the same party in one section or in one geographical region. Everything includes drinking water, sewage, optical fiber, and underground wiring, among others.
Another model can be the public-private community partnership (PPCP) model, under which the community together with the private sector work on the infrastructure project. As the local people know what kind of infrastructure they need, the model can prove quite beneficial.
The project might sound utopic, but this is not a model that must be completed in five or ten years. The government, in the initial phase, can work on one or two such projects with an aim to complete it in two decades.
The government first must think about completing the connectivity projects like Postal Highway, Mid Hill Highway, and Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway on time, so that it can think of building new settlements around the area. These connectivity projects have a huge impact on the economy. The Postal Highway is expected to boost the national economy by 1-1.5 percent, and the Mid Hill Highway is expected to contribute two percent to the economy.
The success of the projects will have a huge impact on the economy as the government doesn’t have to seek foreign aid and support every project. Nepal’s debt to GDP ratio stands at around 40 percent, so we still have some room to stretch borrowing. However, we must invest the loan amount in the productive sector which gives a good return and helps pay off the loan.
A consensual policy
In Nepal, what we have seen over the years is that projects initiated by one political party while leading the government are interrupted by other political parties. While designing mega projects, the government, the opposition, and all the political parties should come forward and agree on a policy.
The local governments are heedlessly spending a huge chunk of the budget on roadways and view towers without any proper planning and research. In many cases, local levels are just excavating hills to construct roadways. The governments must all agree to utilize the budget on projects only after a detailed study.
The leadership should comply with a standard that there should be no human settlement around two kilometers from highways, and no political parties would hinder development projects. The land in the Tarai region must be utilized for agricultural purposes.
Keshav Acharya is a former executive director of Nepal Rastra Bank.