Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track: DPR revised, deadline extended, yet minimal progress
Data shows the design work and contract process for three tunnels and nearly half of the total bridges has not been completed. Even with the ongoing construction of three tunnels, the overall physical progress stands at just 41.57 percent
On Aug 15, a Cabinet meeting decided to revise the detailed project report of the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track Project. No explanation was given. In the updated DPR, the project’s length was reduced from 72.5 km to 70.97 km.
Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport Prakash Jwala said as the length of the highway has been shortened, the project cost will come down by Rs 2bn.
But notably, the new DPR has increased the number of tunnels and bridges, which contradicts the minister’s claim of reduced project cost. Initially, there were three tunnels at Mahadevtar (3.355 km), Dhedre (1.63 km), and Lane Danda (1.43 km). The revised DPR includes three additional tunnels at Debichaur (1 km), Sisautar (0.39 km), and Chandram Bhir (2.25 km), bringing the total number of tunnels to six.
Likewise, the fast track originally also featured 87 bridges, but this number has now increased to 89.
Tunnels and bridges are expensive to build, and infrastructure development experts say they don’t know where Minister Jwala got the idea that the project will save Rs 2bn by reducing the length of the fast track by a mere two kilometers and adding three more tunnels and two extra bridges.
Aslo read: Fast track: Destroyer of civilization?
“Besides minor alignment changes, modifying project designs midway through construction is considered less than ideal,” says infrastructure expert Surya Raj Acharya, development and infrastructure policy expert. “Project designs should not be altered without a thorough and well-founded study that acknowledges their significance.”
In 2008, the Asian Development Bank had estimated the project cost at Rs 70bn. A South Korean company that prepared the DPR in 2019 raised the cost estimate to Rs 112bn. When the Nepal Army took over the project again raised the estimated project cost toRs 175bn.
Once again, the Army and the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport have raised the estimated project cost to Rs 211bn. The project cost could further increase if there are more delays.
The new deadline of the project is April 2027. The project has already undergone four deadline revisions in six years. The latest deadline is likely to be extended again, as the Army has only completed 26.14 percent of the work to date.
Experts say it is impossible to complete the remaining work (around 75 percent) of the project in the next four years, given the amount of challenges ahead, from securing funds to land acquisition to lengthy contract and bidding process.
The financial progress of the project so far stands at 28.11 percent.
Acharya says that the Nepali Army is not the ideal institution to construct this kind of project.
“If the fast track project continues to be managed in its current manner, it not only risks missing its next deadline but could potentially become another ‘white elephant’ project akin to the Melamchi Drinking Water Project,” he says.
The Nepal Army officials have often cited budget crunch as a major hindrance to the timely progress of the project.
The previous governments had not provided enough budget for the expressway. This time, however, the army sources say they are hopeful about securing sufficient budget to make significant progress with the project.
The project contract was handed over to the Army during the previous tenure of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. With Dahal once again in power, the Nepal Army officials are hopeful that the fast track project will get the much-needed attention and priority
“Soon after assuming the office, Prime Minister Dahal conducted an inspection of the project site,” says Brigadier General Krishna Prasad Bhandari, spokesperson of Nepali Army. “We are hopeful that we won’t face a budget crunch under this government.”
Out of the 13 packages that comprise the project, construction work is currently underway in only seven. The remaining six packages have yet to commence. According to the Army, around 95 percent of the project’s tasks are either in the construction phase or in the midst of the bidding process.
However, data shows the design work and contract process for three tunnels and nearly half of the total bridges has not been completed. Even with the ongoing construction of three tunnels, the overall physical progress stands at just 41.57 percent.
Another major challenge lies in the Khokana area, which is an ancient Newa town renowned for its rich culture and heritage. Residents of Khokana are expressing opposition to the expressway project due to concerns that its construction might result in the loss of their cultural heritage. As of now, the Army has not commenced the land acquisition and bidding processes in this area.
The Army says land acquisition process in Khokana has been halted over a compensation row. But the ground reality is different. The halt has more to do with the cultural significance of the area than land issues.
The project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had hinted at the challenges of securing land for the 6 km-stretch of the expressway in Lalitpur. As the area is part of the ancient Newa heritage and a site of various cultural and religious ceremonies, the EIA report had given a heads-up to the project developer.
As anticipated, there was fierce pushback from the residents of Khokana when the time came to open a track for the expressway.
Out of the total land requirement of 15,416 ropanis for the project, 10,244 ropanis are government-owned, and the remaining are privately owned. Within the 5,172 ropanis of private land, there are still 406 ropanis awaiting acquisition, and these parcels are situated in the Khokana area.
Major General Kamal Bikram Shah, the project head, says the government, the National Planning Commision, and other stakeholders are doing their best to resolve the Khokana dispute.
“The Army will start working soon after this issue is settled,” he says.
The idea of constructing the Kathmandu-Tarai fast track, an alternate highway connecting the Kathmandu valley with the Tarai region, was originally conceived during the Panchayat era. However, the project remained in the planning and incubation stages for an extended period.
In 1992, two years following the restoration of democracy, the National Planning Commission collaborated with the Danish Development Cooperation to conduct a feasibility study for the fast track. Four years later, in 1996, the government invited expressions of interest from companies. Despite these initial steps, there was little to no progress for over a decade.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the fast track project was revitalized, thanks to the Asian Development Bank which prepared a feasibility report and preliminary design. That same year, the government proposed an alternative to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport in Nijgadh, Bara, further bolstering the prospects and importance of the expressway.
Features of the expressway
- Total length: 70.977 km
- Width: 25 meters in the hills, 27 meters in the plains
- Start point: Khokana
- End point: Nijgadh
- Areas: Lalitpur, Kathmandu, Makawanpur, Bara
- Tunnels: 6 (10.055 km)
- Bridges: 89 (12.885)
- Interchange: 3 (Khokana, Budune, Nijgadh)
- Toll Plaza: 3 (Khokana, Budune, Nijgadh)
- Deadline: April 2027
- Physical progress: 26.14 percent
- Financial progress: 28.11 percent
- Tunnels: 2,667 meters out of 6,415 meters
- Bridges: 2 out of 89
- Trees felled: 28,646 out of 38,664
- Trees planted: 643,695 out of 709,850
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