On the fast lane to expressways

Nepal’s Transport Policy needs an overhaul to reflect demographic shifts and need for better connectivity

Piecemeal and whimsical decisions by governments about Nepal’s transport infrastructure have not only drained scarce resources, but also created long-term economic inefficiencies.

The Transport Policy of 2001 is obsolete, and over-run by vote bank politics. Two parallel East-West Highways and one railway along the entire length of the 20km wide Tarai is a triplication, and sure to yield negative economic returns.

The railway’s bisection will inhibit natural trickle-down development affect and further settlement expansion southwards. Water impounding is another challenge, and Nepal is already suffering from drainage obstructions by embankments on the Indian side.

Then there is the Madan Bhandari Highway along the Chure Range just 20km north of the East-West Mahendra Highway. It has disturbed the ecologically fragile region, intensified deforestation which in turn has unleashed sedimentation and floods.

The ongoing widening of the Kathmandu-Pokhara Prithivi Highway to 4 lanes, parallel to the 2-lane Pushpalal Mid Hill Highway is not justifiable, either. North-South links for India-Nepal-China tripartite trade do not make sense if Korala on the China border is linked to Gaidakot, which is an Inner Tarai city with no border checkpoint.

A road connection to Sunauli on the Indian border is a better option. But the alignment of the Kali Gandaki Corridor in Gulmi and Baglung have been politically determined, jeopardising the much more convenient route via Syangja and Parbat which would have saved time and cost.

Out in the east, the roadhead connecting Khandbari to hydropower projects along the Arun Valley was built in the wrong direction towards Basantapur from Hile, instead of Leguwaghat involving a detour of 40km.

The previous government set aside budget for the Chandragiri–Chitlang–Palung– Chitwan Expressway with a design speed of more than 100km/h to be implemented by the private sector. This pie-in-the-sky expressway is doomed because the Kathmandu-Tarai Fast Track, is already under construction by the Nepal Army.

This kind of haphazard, ad hoc planning is not just happening at the federal level. Provincial and local governments are also on a full-scale road building spree, often duplicating each other’s plans and wasting money.

Nepal’s Strategic Highways are supposed to harness the development potentials of adjoining regions to complement agricultural and manufacturing, spur education and tourism. Such highway arteries are also essential because of national defense and security considerations.

Strategic Highways have to be fully backed by a national political consensus, and strictly adhered to. The 2001 Transport Policy has to be redrafted to reflect Nepal’s new federal structure, changing demographics and economy.

The 2021 census revealed that although the Tarai makes up 23% of Nepal’s area, 54% of the country’s 30 million people live there. On the other hand, only 6% of the population lives in the high mountains and trans-Himalaya, which make up 35% of the country’s area. The mid-mountains have 40% of the population and 42% of the area.

Nepal’s population is on the move and this has created new urban hubs in the Tarai: the eastern conurbation based in Itahari, the Madhes centre in Janakpur, the Inner Tarai conurbation in Chitwan, the Butwal and Lumbini hubs, and Nepalganj and Dhangadi conurbations in the far west.

Surkhet, Pokhara and Kathmandu are the mid-mountain population centres, and interconnectedness among these nine focal points should be the first principle for transport network planning.

The 24 custom checkpoints with India, prominently Kakadbhitta, Jogbani, Birganj (Raxual), Bhairawa (Sunauli), Nepalganj, Dhangadi (Gauriphanta) and Gaddachauki (Banbasa) need to have roadheads aligned with Indian railway terminals, and treated as obligatory points for Nepal’s domestic transport network.

To the north, there are only five main trading points based on topography and connectivity: Yari, Nheghung, Rasuwagadi, Tatopani and Kimathanka which are conveniently located along rivers that start in Tibet and cut through the Himalaya.

In addition to the interconnecting all these points, high-speed connectivity will be required to accelerate growth and exploit locational advantages for which the shortest alignments are necessary. This means Nepal has to move towards expressways.

The Mahendra Highway and the Nijgad–Kathmandu fast-track will be the arteries of Nepal’s transport network, but the development quadrilateral of Kathmandu–Pokhara–Lumbini– Nijgad–Kathmandu needs to also be factored.

Raxual–Rasuwaghadi is a low hanging fruit among the North South corridors as the Raxual to Kathmandu section is under construction and the Kathmandu–Rasuwagadi segment is a relatively short 100km, albeit technologically demanding. The ongoing plans to construct three other North–South roads: Biratnagar–Kimathanka, Bhairawa–Korala and Nepalganj–Hilsa require realignment in a number of sections, and the design standards have to be improved if a trilateral agreement between India, Nepal and China can be concluded.

Expressways must have design speeds of 100–110 km/h with hard shoulders. They need CCTVs, numbered junctions, regulated entries and exits, at least two lanes each direction with median strip and restricted grade crossings. Slow vehicles are prohibited.

This means that in mountainous contours, a number of considerable stretches may require viaducts or tunnels to also reduce environmental impact. Passages for wild animal crossings are mandatory. The critical issue here will be financing.

International creditors like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are engaged in upgrading the Mahendra Highway. But their design standards will have to be revisited. The private sector could be urged to build the Pokhara-Kathmandu, Pokhara-Butwal and Kathmandu Rasuwagadi expressways under at Build Operate Transfer scheme.

Expressway concessionaires and other investors should also be encouraged to invest in tourism and other industries. Planning industrial corridors along expressways and setting up required infrastructure will be the backbone of Nepal’s future prosperity.

Chandra B Shrestha is former member of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA). 

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