The Siraha model

Published On: December 28, 2016 12:25 AM NPT By: Sukhdev Shah

In all future national budgets at least half the development expenditure should be earmarked for quick-yielding projects
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal promised to do all he could to develop Siraha. He made his promise during a recent visit to his Baluwatar office by a Siraha district delegation. The delegation reminded the prime minister that he has been elected from Siraha and as such had an obligation to help with its development. And the prime minister obliged, promising that he would push some key development issues.

The prime minister mentioned that he was thinking of establishing in the district agriculture and medical colleges and a children’s hospital, all equipped with good facilities and qualified staff. He also announced road repairs and drinking water and river control projects.

But will he be able do it and, if so, how? Also, there is a larger question: Should he, as a national leader, take up such an obligation? After all, many of the development initiatives that were proposed to him on Siraha are local responsibilities and need not be taken up by the center. Of course, the center can do them but, for quality and efficiency local ownership of the projects is essential. Central administration can help with the planning and designing phase of the projects but it need not commit to completing the projects on a turn-key basis.

Now the well-known story is that Siraha and the country at large do not have local administration beyond the government-appointed officials who are accountable to the center and are assigned to district offices just for administrative purposes. Their involvement in local-level works is limited to claiming their share of development bootie.

It is then obvious that the prime minister can’t promote Siraha’s development in the absence of local governments manned by elected representatives. But the sad truth is that there has been no local level election for past 15 years, while billions have been spent on local projects without visible results. The prime minister’s initiatives for Siraha are then unlikely to bring good results. 

Still, there are areas PM Dahal should explore—in Siraha as well as other districts—for central government intervention, in terms of the size of needed financing and expected yields from the projects, and in terms of their contribution to trade, travel, and power generation, to name a few.

Based on these criteria, among half a dozen projects proposed for Siraha’s development, PM Dahal should commit to just one—flood control and, implicitly, large scale irrigation—for which central government would take leadership in financing as well as implementation. 

Although Siraha delegation may feel disappointed by this, if the prime minster acts on this one area, he would carve for himself and his party a permanent place in the district.

I actually visited Siraha on several occasions during the 2013 CA elections and met small groups of people in hundreds of places. In terms of people’s development concerns, I remember just one project that was proposed to me enthusiastically and repeatedly: Khuti Khola development (although I wonder why. I wasn’t an official or a leader.) One evening I traveled from Lahan to attend the chhatta festival celebrated at one site of Khuti Khola which, however, was dry, except for some puddles here and there which people used to offer argha to the Moon and Sun Gods, standing in just ankle-deep water, not the customary chest-deep water.

Returning to the hotel that evening, many people gathered there to plead for development of Khuti Khola. From the hill region to the north, the project would extend to Indian border for about 30 miles and will have the potential to irrigate 400,000 acres of highly fertile farmland. In addition to flood control benefits, farm yield will increase at least three times, along with earnings from multiple cropping made possible by irrigation. They also mentioned that the whole project would cost no more than Rs 500 million, an amount that could be fully paid off in just three years from extra production that would accrue from the irrigated land. 

While we are at it—Siraha’s development—I would mention another possibility that the PM should look into while in Siraha. If he knows Siraha, he must know Dhanusha. In fact, the PM was a CA candidate from Dhanusha constituency number 6 during the 2013 CA elections but later decided to switch to Siraha. The thing about Dhanusha is that it is the site of Janakpur Railway, which is currently being reconstructed. The new track placement stretches from Bardibas in Mahottary district through Janakpur and to near the Indian border town of Jainagar.

While in Siraha, the PM can embellish his gift to district residents by talking of a rail connection from Jainagar to Lahan on the East West Highway. This will add about one third distance to the railway

Track being re-built now, with total rail track length from Bardibas to Lahan via Janakpur and Jainagar coming to about 100 kilometers. This new rail connection will facilitate the emergence of a regional trading hub in Lahan with connections to the Indian market and to rest of the country, an ideal vehicle for quick development of the entire region.            

Looking at the possibility of taking up this kind of development initiatives nationally—that is of giving priority to quick-yielding infrastructure projects like irrigation and rail transport—will give true meaning to Five-Year Development Plans that have been in place for over half a century. The country remains as poor today as it did when the first of such plans got underway way back in 1956.

However, we can’t ignore that we will need appropriate level of funding to get these projects through, on regional as well as national levels. For this our budget allocations should favor quick-yielding projects like the ones proposed for Siraha. Of the three trillions rupees budgeted for development spending in the current budget, at least half should be earmarked for quick-yielding projects, even in future budgets.          

Launching of a development crusade, most likely, won’t be part of the prime minister’s next swing through the district. But this is also important if he and his party are thinking of long-term success in Siraha.

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