Routine repair and maintenance of the roads of Kathmandu valley are definitely not among the prime minister’s duties. Yet Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has had to commit to personally oversee the repairs of all valley roads within a fortnight. He had to make this promise after the tragic twin accidents on July 14, when two young girls—ten-year-old Binita Phuyal of Nepaltar and 13-year-old Satya Sapkota of Samakhushi—fell into open sewers at two different places. While Sapkota was miraculously saved, Phuyal died in hospital. Two days later, PM Deuba summoned the concerned officials responsible for the upkeep of valley roads and for other associated services like drinking water and sewerage. He instructed them to fill up all potholes on valley roads, as well as to repair damaged manhole coverings, within the next 15 days. But eight days after his instruction, it looks as if only half the roads will be repaired by the deadline. While there have been significant improvements in some roads (Tripureshwor-Thapathali-Maitighar, Gaushala-Mitrapark), the roads that were the worst damaged (no more so than the Chabahil-Bouddha stretch) remain pretty much as they were on July 14.
It thus appears that even the prime minister is helpless in getting the rather rigid bureaucracy to properly do its job. Officials at the Prime Minister’s Office and at the Ministry for Federal Affairs and Local Development, who are supposed to supervise timely road repairs, blame incessant rains for hampering repairs. And since it will be useless to try to blacktop these roads in the middle of the monsoon, they say the best bet now is to fill up the potholes with gravel and wait for the dry season for blacktopping. They are right. Immediately, we have no option but to temporarily fill up the pits. But it is what may happen (or not) in the long run that is a bigger cause for concern. The reason our roads are hastily blacktopped on the eve of every monsoon—notwithstanding the recent crisis-induced volte-face of our bureaucrats—is that the rainy season coincides with the end of the fiscal year. This means that if the budgetary outlay for the blacktopping of roads is not used up soon, the money will be frozen. And if it is frozen, road officials and contractors will not be able to make easy money that comes with substandard work carried out in this period.
It will not be easy to change this entrenched culture of shoddy work and inaction. The only way it will change is through sustained pressure from above. It is again a tragedy that the prime minister should have to be personally involved in simple road repairs, when he should in fact be spending most of his time clearing hurdles to the three sets of elections that must be completed by the January 21, 2018 constitutional deadline. But unlike the constitution, the state of their roads is an issue of direct concern for most people, and it is the kind of yardstick with which they judge their government. In the wake of the July 14 tragedy, the prime minister and the ruling parties have a great opportunity to win the trust of common folks in the valley; the same with newly elected local representatives here. It would be unwise on their part to let this great opportunity go to waste, and to thereby earn more public opprobrium in this election season.