Kathmandu’s roads have always been used as dumping grounds or storage spaces for construction materials. Bricks, mortar, cement, and rods line many main streets and inner alleys alike, making driving or even walking on those roads difficult, if not impossible. Often, you can’t take your bike or car out of the house because the road is blocked off by construction happening in the area. If that weren’t enough, there are always electrical poles, water and sewage pipes and piles of telephone or internet wires taking up permanent space on almost every other road. That’s just how it is, we tell ourselves, and find alternate, albeit longer or inconvenient, routes for our daily commutes.
But nothing that obstructs the road or causes inconvenience to the public is allowed, says Shiva Prasad Nepal, spokesperson at the Department of Roads (DoR) under the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport. Problems arise when everybody is doing their own thing with blatant disregard for what’s allowed and what’s not, he says. At any point, the roads, even inner streets, should be clear for easy movement and passage of vehicles. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Kathmandu. There have been instances of ambulances not being able to reach people’s homes because their streets were obstructed by multiple mounds of gravel and sand.
“In many places, wide roads have narrowed while narrow roads have gotten narrower,” says Nepal. “People are using roads as extensions of their homes, where they park their cars, dump garbage and store construction materials for long stretches of time.” Then there’s also the issue of the Nepal Electricity Authority not removing old poles and wires, and the Kathmandu Upatyaka Khanepani Limited (KUKL) not blacktopping roads after digging it up to fix pipelines. This, Nepal says, obstructs and damages our city roads. He says the DoR has MoUs with various authorities like the NEA and KUKL allowing them to potentially use roads for their works. The deal is that whoever digs up or carries out maintenance work on roads has to restore them to their original state.
However, that’s not been the case, says Nepal, and that the DoR receives quite a few complaints about roads being dug up and left in muddy heaps, or electrical poles left in the middle of the street. DoR, he says, writes a letter to the concerned department requesting them to attend it but that is the extent of what they can do. “We can only hope they will keep their word, cooperate and fix the roads they have worked on,” says Nepal. Out of the 1,600 km of roads in the valley, only 440 km is under the DoR and they are only responsible for expansion and repair of these roads. The rest, the spokesperson says, falls under the jurisdiction of different municipalities and development boards.
Sunil Kumar Das, undersecretary at the Ministry of Water Supply and Sanitation, says it is KUKL’s responsibility to make the roads ready to be blacktopped after digging up. They don’t have the expertise to rebuild the roads. Conflicting statements from the concerned authorities suggest there is a lack of coordination and thus no clear-cut course of action, causing further disarray when there are inevitable constructions or renovations. But SP Sanjib Sharma Das, spokesperson of the Metropolitan Traffic Police Department, says nobody can use the road in a way that troubles others. You can’t block roads for weddings or construction. It’s not unusual for people to put up with road blockages because everybody knows Kathmandu is congested and there isn’t much space. How are you to build a house if you can’t bring and store the materials required for it on the road?
But Das says the law doesn’t allow that, and that there is a solution. Construction work can be carried out at night, from 8 pm to 6 am. That way, the bricks, sand and other stuff can be used up before it’s time for vehicles to move about. SP Das says that is what’s happening in his locality near HAMS Hospital in Mandikhatar, Kathmandu. After the superintendent’s repeated requests not to block the road with construction materials thus hampering vehicular movement, work now happens during off-hours and the road is clear during the day.
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“If you have trouble moving about because of construction in their area, you can dial 100 or 103 and the police will come and get it cleared,” says Das. The police, however, don't resort to action or punishment in this case. They will only explain to the workers and owners of the property that they shouldn’t be troubling others. And in most cases, it works, says Das. “You don’t have to suffer the consequences of somebody else’s actions. Just be proactive and alert the authorities,” he says.
The problem of road obstruction apparently only arises when property owners opt for a labor contract instead of approaching construction companies that also manage other aspects of construction—environmental, social, traffic, health and safety. Kashin Dotel, senior project manager at Tundi Construction Pvt. Ltd., says a labor contract is mostly focused on cost minimization and profit maximization and that leads to many problems. “Since you pay per trip to bring in bricks and cement, you usually bring more than what is needed and dump it on the roads,” says Dotel. This doesn’t happen when a construction company is involved in a project. “We only bring as much as we need for a single job or go for ready-mix concrete that can be delivered to the site when needed or which takes very less preparation time. It ensures nothing is left lying around in public spaces,” he says.
Dotel’s colleague Asmit Pokhrel adds that there are many challenges that need to be taken care of before starting a construction project. A proper plan and company-client agreement are needed to ensure construction is carried out in a professional manner, with little to no harmful or troublesome impact on workers and public alike. “Construction companies plan everything before starting a project, finding additional space to store materials. That helps mitigate issues like traffic obstruction,” says Pokhrel. And when that’s not the case and issues do arise, DoR spokesperson Nepal says people can lodge a complaint at the DoR or with the police and, rest assured, it will be sorted.