It is a phenomenon seen across the world in electoral democracies: politicians falling into the temptation of pouring large chunks of their national budgets into gargantuan projects to show their macho-ness. Admittedly, such big-mindedness is not restricted to elected officials – it is even more prevalent in authoritarian states which lavish money on Olympic complexes, empty skyscrapers, or space programs meant more to enhance national prestige than national well-being. The megalomania of rulers grows to match their egos.
Nepal’s united Communist government seems to be afflicted by an incurable strain of political gigantism reminiscent of their historic mentors. The budget presented to Parliament by Finance Minister Khatiwada on Tuesday laid correct emphasis on youth employment and raising living standards, but at the same time gave mysterious VAT exemptions to mobile phone traders and disbursed pork-barrel funds to MPs.
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The main outlays were for infrastructure in energy and transportation, and we have no quibbles with that. Connectivity is key to Nepal’s future growth. The debate is whether we should put all our eggs in one basket, and go for big risky projects rather than invest in smaller and affordable ones distributed evenly across the country.
They promise electric trains whizzing east to west or north to south, when they cannot even widen an existing 36km section of the Mugling-Narayanghat Highway. The cost to the national economy of the three-year delay in refurbishing that arterial road far outstripped its actual cost.
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Similarly, a 9km strip of the southern Ring Road has been mired in mud and dust for over three years. Apathy and neglect have turned the capital’s thoroughfares into obstacle courses. There was hope that the first elections to municipal councils in 20 years would make mayors and ward committees more accountable.
Alas, one year after they took office, the chosen ones have turned out to be even more feckless and clueless: taking the easy way out by blaming Melamchi pipe-laying for their incompetence.
Instead of doing what is do-able, and fixing what can easily be fixed, our city fathers have taken a sudden interest in grandiose schemes like underground metros, magnetic levitation, monorails, cable cars, and even something called sky rail.
The capital city obviously needs to upgrade to an efficient mass transit system. A metropolis of 3.5 million people cannot rely on tiny three-wheelers to serve commuters on trunk routes. It cannot have microbuses packed like sardine cans by owners of transportation cartels. And instead of being rewarded, a bureaucrat who was trying to rein in the bus mafia was sacked by the Industries Minister.
This kleptocratic, rent-seeking state structure is pushing mega transportation projects. A rational and inexpensive masterplan supported by the Asian Development Bank involving Bus Rapid Transit has been allowed to lapse because it is not grand enough, and perhaps more transparent.
Widening roads, constructing underpasses and flyovers do not ease traffic jams, they increase them. We have seen from other Asian capitals that the solution to traffic congestion is a more efficient and reliable mass transit system. The number of vehicles in Kathmandu Valley has tripled in seven years, and their emissions make Kathmandu Valley’s air often more polluted than even Beijing or New Delhi. A public transport system is therefore needed foremost to protect public health.
Nepal’s rulers are exhibiting a similar edifice complex about building a new airport in Nijgad. The entire premise is flawed because it is designed as a hub to serve transit passengers, which may have had advantages in the 1990s because of Nepal’s location, but with longer range airliners it no longer makes sense.
Also, there are two new international airports coming up in Pokhara and Bhairawa (both delayed because of political competition for kickbacks). Kathmandu airport itself is undergoing a $100 million upgrade to increase capacity and efficiency — also delayed due to government bungling. Besides, there is an existing domestic airport in Simara 10km away that can easily be expanded in future if an international airport becomes necessary, and save the eastern Tarai’s last large tract of primary sal forest. The primary destination of most passengers arriving at Nijgad will be Kathmandu, which will take at least two hours to reach after landing, even with an expressway.
So, just like with hydropower, highways, high rises, public transport and airports, the motto is: bigger is better because bigger is bigger kickbacks. Mixed with populist politics, this will ensnare future generations of Nepalis even deeper in debt.
Photo credit: Dipendra Bhandari