Last week, two things really hit me hard. The first was when Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Finance Madhu Marasini tweeted his frustration about ‘project blockers’. According to him, a group of people demanded Rs 100 million from the World Bank for a mere 3.5 hectares of unused slope on a hill through which a power transmission line would pass. He vented his frustration asking how he could ask the World Bank for anything now. In another event, a person associated a cooperative proudly displayed a newspaper picture to a friend, boasting about how he had brought traffic to a standstill on the day of the Cooperative Congress.
In Nepal, we take pride in blocking things. People do will not allow vehicles to pass when there is a marriage procession. They do not care that it is causing a traffic jam. This same group of people then talk of arriving on time. Recently, my vehicle was nearly vandalised in Patan. The roads had apparently been closed for a cycling event but I was driving, as I did not know of this event. The volunteers who stopped me were even harsher than the Army during curfews. Various walks and runs are organised nearly every weekend these days. Though unsure of what good they do, such events definitely send traffic on a spin. Banners with different logos jostling for space make it seem as though ‘stopping’ is something people do not mind. Else, why would they support events that block traffic and cause inconvenience?
Similarly, observe the guard who stops you at a premise and allows you to pass if you say you have come for a meeting. They even do that to customers at a bank. Forget about the rent-seeking practices in government offices. The way our journey is mapped out—requiring us to go from one room in a particular floor to another room in another floor and back to the original floor—is all about creating opportunities to stop. They want to stop you as much as possible, from getting your citizenship certificate, passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate or company registration. And these are the few times the citizen is forced to interact with the government. There are even more impediments when one goes to get an electricity connection, a water supply line or fuel.
Blocking for a living
On driving through many rural areas in Nepal, suddenly, you will often see a hand that waves and stops the vehicle. You assume someone is asking for a lift but then you receive a ticket indicating road tax. No questions are entertained. During the days of the insurgency, the Maoists made this a good source of income. This tradition continues in many places till date. You do not know why the money is being collected, what will happen to the money and how will it be spent. It is not about the Rs 15 or Rs 25 they collect. Going by the way these collectors talk to you, it would seem as though you have entered an alien land within the country. Of course, these happen with the blessings of political forces. And when these politicians in the village move to towns, cities and the Capital, they use their stopping power to create opportunities for themselves.
In the early 1990s, when Nepal was on a golden run of economic growth, a big power project was to be initiated by the World Bank—Arun III. Many NGOs and pressure groups were created to block that project in the name of environmental impact. Multiple seminars and workshops were held. Activists increased their own carbon footprint by jetsetting from one junket to another, talking about the environment damage the project could cause. Nepal lost a big project due to people who made activism their livelihood. Now, we are seeing many groups who have found yet another opportunity to throttle projects for a livelihood.
Enforcing the law Like people who peddle ‘poverty’ and eke out a living, these people love to create impediments and make money. There is no dearth of people wanting to fund such activities. Frustrated activists, who cannot stop anything in their own countries, find nations like ours to pursue their dreams of a world that is at best equivalent to living in a primordial era. Some members of the Nepali diaspora, who lead a quality life, love to voice their thoughts on social media on why projects should not happen. It seems as though many long for a village that will never see roads, electricity or water and remains stuck in the 19th century even when they visit Nepal 20 years later.
While social behaviour is hard to change, two things need to happen immediately in order to build large infrastructure projects. First, the government needs to filter the international assistance that is coming to a plethora of agencies. You cannot allow a $100,000 grant to stall $100 million projects. The government and international organisations must make an effort to monitor this. Second, the government needs to ensure rule of law in the face of troublemakers. If the state could enforce a strict ‘No Drinking and Driving’ law and bring down buildings to widen roads, it can definitely acquire private land through compensation and make the projects of national priority happen.
In India, while Kolkata took decades to build a few kilometres of metro railway, Delhi built a network in less than a decade. It was only possible because the government ensured land acquisition for the developer. Economic growth can be delivered through infrastructure projects that create linkages and jobs. Any impediments should be dealt with seriously by the state.