An ApEX team was recently on a field-reporting trip of the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track Road Project. Our objective was to document progress on the 72.5km expressway that will connect Kathmandu valley with Bara district in the Tarai, considerably cutting time and distance between these economic fulcrums of the country.
At a project site at Bandarekholchha of Makwanpurgadhi Rural Municipality in Makwanpur district, we spotted a villager arguing with a Chinese excavator operator.
Ram Bahadur Waiba, we learned, was angry about indiscriminate felling of trees. The stumps of freshly cut trees were before our eyes, and Waiba, despite the language barrier, was demanding an explanation from the Chinese worker.
“They [Chinese workers] have chopped down almost a dozen trees for which they have no permit,” Waiba told ApEx.
There was an army camp nearby to listen to and address the concerns of the people living in and around the project site. But Waiba said the army had ignored their complaints.
It was a clear case of the project contractor violating the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. The army had already cut down the required number of trees in the area to make way for the fast track. Felling more trees is against the EIA mandate. The residents of Bandarekholchha told ApEx that neither them nor the forest department was informed before the trees were axed.
The army denies the EIA protocol was breached. In a press conference organized at the army headquarters on Feb 23, Brig. Gen. Bikash Pokharel, the fast track project chief, dismissed our finding that trees at Bandarkholchha had been felled. He even refused to accept our photographic evidence.
Pokharel instead claimed the fast track had created jobs for those living near project sites.
“For every Chinese worker, there are three Nepalis employed at the project sites,” he told the assembled media representatives. “Chinese workers, moreover, teach useful skills to their local counterparts.”
But the people we spoke to had a different experience. Most of them were unhappy with the way the army was managing the project. They said very few villagers were employed.
“Although this mega project has come to our village, we are not getting the promised jobs,” says Dinesh Moktan of Bakaiya Rural Municipality in Makawanpur. “We asked the army for more local participation, but our plea was ignored.”
There is still a lot of work to be done before the new fast track deadline of 2024 (the previous deadline was November 2021). The army itself reports 16.1 percent overall progress. Experts warn of further time and cost overruns. Some even question the idea of handing over fast track construction to Nepal Army. Their concerns emanate from alleged irregularities in the project that have cropped up time and again since the government commissioned the task to the army in 2017.
Semant Dahal, a lawyer who has closely studied the project, believes time has come to ask some hard questions. Given the paucity of progress in the past five years, “Do we still think it [the Army] is the most suitable entity to build such an infrastructure project?” he questions.
In 2019, a probe had found that the evaluation criteria for the selection of consulting firms for the project had been leaked to potential bidders. The decision to select six international companies was scrapped over the leak, which the army termed a “technical error”.
The following year, a government review committee opened an investigation into the army’s alleged breach of the Public Procurement Act when it selected a Korean company as a project consultant.
Fast track construction was handed over to the army following an earlier controversy over the government’s decision to award the contract to Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) of India in 2014. The contract dispute had reached the Supreme Court and the deal was ultimately ditched.
Meanwhile, the army was lobbying to secure the contract despite having no prior experience of working on large infrastructure projects.
The 2017 decision to award the project to the army had gotten a favorable response from experts and public alike. After all, it was the army that had opened the track for the expressway. Five years later, the army’s role is increasingly coming into question.
Experts and stakeholders are demanding transparency and accountability from the army as the project has run into delays and controversies. The fast-track cost, which was estimated at Rs 86 billion in 2011, has soared to Rs 213 billion. The army is in no place to assure that the project will be completed within the new deadline and reasonable budget.
The army’s lack of experience in big projects is perhaps a reason the fast track has been facing hiccups and delays.
Further, some say the schooling and institutional attitude of the army hasn’t changed much since the 90s—as the army was back then, it is still largely unaccountable to the authorities.
There have been numerous complaints against the army’s flouting of the instructions of parliamentary committees and other government bodies.
Bharat Kumar Shah, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, says the army just does not listen.
“We had asked the Nepal Army to halt bridge and tunnel works following some discrepancies in the bidding process, but it simply brushed aside our directive,” says Shah.
The army is also not helpful when it comes to sharing information, or supporting independent inquiry. Our team was repeatedly accosted and questioned by the army in the course of reporting at fast track sites. They demanded a permit from army headquarters to take photos at some sites—all public places.
Many experts ApEx spoke to (many of whom chose to remain anonymous) say that in retrospect giving the fast track to the army was a bad decision. They suspect the project was handed over to the army to avoid controversies, with most people trusting the institution to do the right thing.
Brig. Gen. Narayan Silwal, the army spokesperson, denies the allegations against the army. He says talks of the expressway being further delayed and incurring more money are all misinformed rumors.
“The national pride project is being built under the management of a disciplined institution,” he insists.