UNTIL recently, even the critics of PM Baburam Bhattarai credited him for showing the guts to expand the valley’s narrow roads, which successive governments had left untouched fearing public backlash. But Bhattarai pushed on, against often raucous protests from roadside residents, who accused him of authoritarian tendencies for running bulldozers over their lifetimes’ earnings. But more than a year into the demolition job, there seems to be no end to it in sight. Notably, in his message to the country to mark his year in office, Bhattarai had assured valley residents that not only would all demolition works be finished by the end of the festival of Dashain (Oct. 29), the government would also have been done and dusted with the whole road expansion project. But Kathmandu Valley Town Development Implementation Committee (KVTDIC), which has been tasked with demolishing roadside infrastructure, has been able to complete its work on just 72 of 115 kilometers; and just four of the 72 kilometers of cleared roads have been repaved.
The thing that seems to be hampering the road expansion drive the most is the lack of coordination among relevant government agencies as well as their utter lack of accountability. For instance, KVTDIC alleges the Department of Roads (DoR) and Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC), the two designated bodies to rebuild the damaged roads, of failing to carry out their responsibilities, and in the process, unjustly earning KVTDIC a bad name. The Kathmandu Valley Road Improvement Project under the DoR lobs the ball back into KVTDIC’s court, alleging the demolition body of causing unnecessary delays by failing to carry out its own work properly. The Project, likewise, accuses Nepal Electricity Authority of not clearing the electric pylons on the demolished road sections on time; NEA in turn frowns upon KVTDIC’s ‘patchwork’ approach. The buck, it seems, never stops. Another much published hindrance has been the refusal of foreign diplomatic missions to let their roadside infrastructure be demolished without proper compensations.
This lack of accountability and constant buck-passing suggests a poorly designed project, one that failed to take into account likely obstructions, many of which were not hard to foresee. For instance, foreign missions could have been consulted in advance; and plans devised to take the demolition and rebuilding works ahead side by side. It would be unfair to blame the government for everything that has gone wrong with the ongoing road expansion drive. In a project of such scale, it is impossible to foresee every future obstacle. Nonetheless, given the pathetic state of Kathmandu’s roads today and its deleterious side-effects on people (from an acute increase in respiratory problems among roadside inhabitants to a dramatic loss in the aesthetic value of the capital), one can’t help wondering if the government made an undue haste, even if its heart was in the right place. Expediting the clean up and rebuilding efforts would be one way to try to make up. Above all, the never-ending road expansion should be a reminder that it is unwise to start big public projects without adequate homework.