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May 26, 2024
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Will declaring an emergency help accelerate infrastructure projects?

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal last week floated the idea of declaring a state of emergency to fast-track the development of infrastructure projects.

Addressing the nation on December 26, Dahal said, “Infrastructure development should be given high priority by declaring a state of emergency if required.”

The prime minister’s remark came in response to the poor progress in several major infrastructure projects due to a lack of cooperation among the government offices, which delays site clearance, among other issues.

The process leading to the cutting of trees is complicated, Dahal said. “Taking the forest land for use and acquiring forest area [for development projects] is equally difficult. There are several problems with acquiring private lands as well,” the prime minister said. “I will seek a long-term solution to the problems in infrastructure development through legal, policy, and procedural measures.”

The prime minister thus acknowledged the problems plaguing infrastructure development in the country. Many stakeholders have long been pointing this out.

This is also reflected in capital expenditure so far this fiscal year. As of January 1, the government’s capital expenditure stood at just 14 percent of the allocated budget, according to the Financial Comptroller General Office.

“The prime minister acknowledging the problem is good but action should also be taken to improve the situation,” said Tulasi Prasad Sitaula, former secretary at the physical infrastructure ministry.

The prime minister floated the idea of an emergency to speed up infrastructure development without providing details of how the declaration of emergency would help accelerate infrastructure projects.

“There is no guarantee that declaring a state of emergency would help to accelerate the development projects as long as a tendency to create a lot of obstruction exists until personal interests are fulfilled,” said Sitaula.

The state of emergency can be declared when there is severe economic distress too, according to the Constitution of Nepal.

Stakeholders said that laws that are unfriendly to infrastructure development should be amended, and there is no need to declare a state of emergency to amend the laws.

Speaking at the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the House of Representatives last month, Chief of Army Staff Prabhuram Sharma complained about forest-related laws that have affected the construction of the Kathmandu-Nijgadh expressway. Nepal Army is undertaking this project after prolonged uncertainty over how to develop this National Pride Project.

“I took the prime minister and defence minister for an observation tour of the Fast Track in April when four trees needed to be felled for the right of way,” said Army chief Sharma. “Nine months later, we have not yet received approval for cutting those four trees.”

He complained that even though the project was called Fast Track, the laws are not helping to fast-track the project’s development.

Non-cooperation from the offices under the Ministry of Forest and Environment has been a common complaint of the government agencies responsible for various infrastructure projects.

“The biggest problem has been the laws that are not friendly to infrastructure development,” said Arjun Jung Thapa, former director general at the Department of Roads. “There should be necessary amendments to the laws related to the forest, environment, land acquisition and public procurement.”

According to forest law, the developer of an infrastructure project—a hydropower plant, for example—has to buy the government a land area equal to the forestland acquired.

“Why should equivalent land be bought for the forest authority as the entire hydropower project and the land it uses come under the government’s ownership after 30 years as per the public-private partnership law?” Thapa asked.

He also complained about the need to carry out an integrated environmental assessment, even to build a small bridge.

The stakeholders questioned whether declaring a state of emergency would help to address these problems. Though the prime minister didn’t mention anything about how declaring an emergency would help to fast-track infrastructure works, there were calls for the government to cut the time taken in procurement and remove other obstacles by suspending the regular government approval process.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the government introduced an ordinance suspending the regular process of public procurement to fast-track the procurement of medical goods.

“How long can the regular process be avoided as a state of emergency is only for a limited period?” Thapa expressed his concern. “Instead of declaring an emergency, it is necessary to focus on long-term legal reforms so that laws are friendly to infrastructure development.”

Former secretary Sitaula said that the tendency to suspend normal procedures could promote irregularities. “For example, if you allow the procurement of goods and services without competition, interest groups rush to take advantage,” he said.

He suggested that the government should promptly make officials accountable for their indecision. The Fiscal Procedures and Financial Accountability Act provides for penalising officials who don’t make timely decisions. “Those not doing work and delaying decisions should be penalised,” said Sitaula.

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