KATHMANDU: Lack of infrastructure — esp-ecially roads, air connectivity, bridges, et cetera, which make economic activities possible and viable across the country — is one of the greatest challenges to Nepal’s economic growth. However, the existing transport infrastructure shows that simple construction of new infrastructure, with the vote banking approach in political decision making process, may not be enough to accelerate economic growth. Due priority has to be given to other aspects such as quality, efficiency, reliability and utilisation in the process of planning and building transport infrastructure. Without proper attention to these aspects, transport infrastructure may fail to contribute to economic growth and merely add to the environmental and maintenance burden.
At the end of the Three Year Interim Plan (2007-10), only four district headquarters in Nepal were without road connection. While the
government’s focus remains on connecting all 75 districts through roads, one of the important issues is its impact and role in increasing economic gain and subsequently the standard of living of people in the areas where they are built. It is obvious that for transport infrastructure to play an important role in increasing economic activities, the network needs to be efficient, reliable and ensure a minimum
level of quality to the users. How-ever, when it comes to quality, the transport network fails miserably.
More than one-third of the road network of Nepal cannot be
used and around 50 per cent of the road network is only usable during fair weather. Also, only
55 per cent of the strategic road networks (SRNs) are paved with bitumen or gravel. The high
rate of disruption and
accidents on the highways during the monsoons are also indicative of the poor road conditions of Nepal.
Therefore, the existing quality of roads do not provide a strong base for growing economic activities as no business can grow or
sustain when transportation is risky. Additionally, transport-ation has grown more costly over the years owing to a number of
reasons. Combined with the poor quality of roads, lack of alternate routes, frequent strikes, existing transport syndicating and low
utilisation has led to rising costs in transportation. Significant percentage of trucks carrying goods still return empty and hence, when
the transport network is so costly, economic activities do not flourish.
From a purely economic viewpoint, it could be said that Nepal’s transport infrastructure is ahead of its economic growth. The Department of Road’s 2011 report on traffic volume and vehicle count reveals that 41 per cent of SRNs still have traffic level below 100 vehicles per day (VPD) (excluding motorcycles) and 33 per cent of SRN have traffic level below 50 VPD (excluding
motorcycles). This indicates low utilisation rates of transport infrastructure and limited economic
returns on a large investment.
Though the road network grew by 27 per cent between 2000 and 2010, Nepal’s growth has remained stagnant over the period and from this perspective, it could be said that the growth in transport infra-structure has not been able to play a significant role in delivering
economic benefits to the people.
Hence, it is important to realise that while delivering transport networks, mere focus on connect-
ivity not only wastes resources without contributing to actual growth and betterment of quality of life for the people, but also invites environmental degradation, and
becomes a maintenance burden. Moreover, such quality compromised roads results in ‘killer roads’ which is evident from the rising
accident rates we have witnessed
in the recent times. Hence, when it comes to transport infrastructure, there is an acute need for prior-itisation based more on the facts rather than political vote bank.
In order to facilitate the process of economic growth through the development of transport infrastructure, the government should seriously prioritise and provide guaranteed quality and level of service to the road users. For this, applying asset management with proper maintenance is important, which requires adequate funding, effective monitoring, along with allocation of maintenance resources according to the network usage.
Hence, in the context of Nepal, where a large portion of the road network remains underutilised, measures should be taken to
increase viability, which depends on how much extra traffic can be generated or diverted to enhance the transport sector project. This should be considered while infrastructure planning is being done. Focus and priority should be laid on building and implementing viable infrastructure network that will deliver on the economic front, thus helping people to increase their standard of living.
(The author is research officer at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)