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ApEx Explainer: The what, where and when of the fast track

ApEx Explainer: The what, where and when of the fast track

The Kathmandu-Tarai fast track was conceived decades ago. But work on it started only after the government handed over the project to Nepal Army (NA) in 2017. In a revised deadline, the army has pledged to complete the 72.5 km expressway by 2025. But that timeline will be tough to meet. Here is an explainer about the project history, challenges and current status.  

The start

The construction of Kathmandu-Tarai fast track, an alternative highway linking Kathmandu valley with (Bara district in) the Tarai, was envisaged during the Panchayat era. But the project spent a long time in incubation and planning stages. 

In 1992, two years after the restoration of democracy, the National Planning Commission in collaboration with the Danish Development Cooperation conducted a feasibility study for the fast track. Four years later, in 1996, the government invited an expression of interest from companies. Yet there was no progress for more than a decade. 

In the intervening period, Nepal was thrust into an armed conflict, followed by a popular uprising. The centuries-old monarchy was overthrown and the country became a federal republic.    

In 2008, the fast track plan was revived after the Asian Development Bank (ADB) prepared a feasibility report and preliminary design. The same year, the government proposed an alternative to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport in Nijgadh, Bara, further boosting the expressway’s prospects.

The army was entrusted with opening the track in 2008. After this was completed in 2011, successive governments sought international investors to develop the project, but there was again little progress.   

Failed international bids

The process of inviting international bidders for the fast track development started after 2011, but the response was tepid. The project was largely seen as light in terms of returns. 

In the pre-qualification bid in 2014, the Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS), the Larsen and Toubro (L&T) Infrastructure Development Project, and the Reliance Infrastructure expressed interest.  Two companies later pulled out raising the issue of the project’s economic viability. The then Nepali Congress-led government decided to give the job to the consortium led by IL&FS. The company was assured annual revenue of Rs 15 billion from the expressway. 

But the government decision to award the contract to the company was challenged in the Supreme Court. The petitioners argued that the project’s cost was very high. In response, the court on 9 Oct 2015 directed the Nepal government to halt all related works. 

The subsequent CPN-UML government led by KP Sharma Oli terminated all agreements and contracts signed with IL&FS.  

In the fiscal 2016-17, the government decided to develop the fast track with domestic resources by allocating Rs 10 billion for the construction of its Budhune-Hetauda stretch.  

The army’s choice

The government had planned to construct the Kathmandu-Tarai fast track under the build-own-operate-and-transfer (BOOT) modal, but international companies were uninterested. Meanwhile, the army was lobbying to secure the contract. 

The Nepali Congress-Maoist Center government at the time was wary about awarding the project to private companies and decided to entrust the project to the army in 2017. Then, South Korea’s Soosung Engineering Co. prepared the fast track’s detailed project report (DPR).

The government officially handed over the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track Road Project to the army on 11 Aug 2017. 

The current status

The army tracks the project’s progress in two ways: physical and financial. According to its latest data, overall physical progress stands at 16.10 percent and the financial progress at 14.51 percent. 

According to the army, 96 percent land-acquisition has been completed, except at Khokana in Lalitpur district. Similarly, 99.02 percent of tree feeling has been completed. 

By mid-July 2022, the NA aims for 21 percent overall progress.  

The key features

According to the army, the fast track is designed as per the Asian Highway standard, with a two-lane dual carriageway that will be 25-meter wide in the hills and 27-meter wide in the plains. 

The 72.5-km expressway starts at Khokana in Lalitpur and ends at Nijgadh in Bara where it meets the East-West Highway. It will traverse parts of Kathmandu Valley, Siwalik hill range, Doon valley, Mahabharat range and Tarai plains.  

The environmental concerns

The Ministry of Forest and Environment approved the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2015. The army claims to have fully factored in environmental concerns while developing the expressway. Compensatory tree plantation (25 trees for every one felled) has been expedited as mandated in the EIA; 402,823 tree saplings have been planted as of July 2021.

The EIA report says that there is a high chance of landslides due to deforestation. Moreover, if soil and debris from construction activities are not properly managed, they could pollute rivers and affect land fertility.    

Environmentalist Prabhu Budathoki says environmental concerns are routinely neglected in big development projects. As such, there should be a close environmental follow-up on the Kathmandu-Tarai fast track.

Concerns of Khokana residents

Khokana in Lalitpur district is an ancient Newa town known for its culture and heritage. Khokana residents are against the expressway, whose construction, they fear, could lead to a loss of their heritage and ancestral lands.   

The army says timely project completion will be difficult without resolving their issues. 

Factors slowing it down

Land acquisition in Khokana is one of the key hindrances. The Covid-19 pandemic also slowed work. 

The army says interference by parliamentary committees has also hindered progress. 

Tunnel construction is said to be one of the most challenging and time-consuming parts of the project and the army is still in the process of planning the tunnels.  

To expedite work, the army has asked the government to allocate sufficient funds in the coming years.  

The army says it can complete the project by the January 2025 deadline, provided the government allocates sufficient funds and settles disputes related to land acquisition. (The initial project deadline was September 2021.)

Former government secretary Tulsi Prasad Sitaula blames the army’s lack of experience in large infrastructure projects for the delays.

Another reason is the absence of contractors capable of undertaking a large infrastructure like the fast track. As a result, adds Sitaula, the army had to bring in international companies, which is also taking time. 

The army won’t meet the January 2025 deadline if it fails to select international companies on time. In that case, says Sitaula, the project could be pushed back by at least another year.  

The cost 

Delays have massively increased project cost. In 2008, the ADB had estimated a total cost of Rs 70 billion. The Korean company that prepared the DPR in 2019 raised the cost estimate to Rs 112 billion. Today, the army estimates that the undertaking could cost Rs 175 billion. It has also issued a caveat that the project cost could further increase if there are more delays.

Potential economic benefits

Experts say the fast track will have multiple positive impacts on the economy. The distance between Kathmandu and Birgunj through the Tribhuvan Highway is 159.66 km. With the fast track, the Kathmandu-Terai route will be much shorter. In fact, it will be the shortest trade route between Kathmandu and India. The fast track could also one day become a transit route between China and India. 

Shorter time and distance will also reduce fuel consumption, saving millions of dollars of import every year. Transport fares for commodities will also be lower. 

Travel time between Kathmandu and Tarai will be cut to an hour. Additionally, the fast track will create jobs and increase economic activities along the entire route.