When Kathmandu was cut off from most of the country for nearly two weeks due to a massive landslide at Krishnabhir on the Prithvi Highway, reaction in the capital swung between two extremes. One group was apathetic: landslide, what landslide? The other group started panic-buying.
Government officials, including the Works Secretary, tried to assure everyone that the road would open in "one or two days" instead of telling the public that this was a huge slope failure that would take weeks to cut through.
Keeping the supply-lines to Kathmandu open is not an easy task, especially during the monsoons when the young mountains crumble and slip after every downpour. There is nothing new about the fury of nature during a Himalayan monsoon; what is. is that the population has increased and there is more travel. And because there is better communication, we hear about them more.
The pros and cons of various kinds of road access to Kathmandu from the south has been debated ever since the Rana days. It was only in 1956 that the arduously built Tribhuvan Highway was completed, and a road link to the tarai and India was finally established.
For the first decade or so, the precarious, serpentine highway was chronically blocked by landslips. But after four decades, the slopes along the Tribhuvan Highway have stabilised and these days it remains passable during the monsoons too.
Ironically, it is this Tribhuvan Highway, long shunned because of its narrow width, sharp turns and steep climbs and descents, that comes to Kathmandu\'s rescue every time the Prithvi Highway is shut down. Most of the traffic from Kathmandu took this single-lane road and the authorities even enforced an oneway system to prevent traffic jams. Even with this alternative, the highway leading out of Kathmandu at Thankot is a choke point for most traffic in and out of Kathmandu and that includes vital supplies such as food and fuel, as well as passenger traffic. Block that 10-metre strip of asphalt and you have Kathmandu by the jugular. The Japanese are studying a Thankot Bypass to connect Naubise on the Prithvi Highway to the Balaju Bus Park through the Bhimdhunga gap (behind Sitapaila). One disabled truck on the Thankot uphill earlier this year closed the route in and out of the Valley for two days. The Thankot Bypass would prevent such closures and also reduce the distance to Naubise.
However, as the need is immediate, as the Krishnabhir blockage showed, the government needs to give serious thought to improving the Tribhuvan Highway as a reliable alternative to the overloaded Prithvi Highway. Says one road engineer: "That means more than taking care of the riding surface. Hazard assessment of the road corridor should be done on a regular basis and coping mechanism set up in place."
Things are going to change after the Sindhuli Highway is completed in another two years. After five decades of talking about it, Kathmandu will at last have an alternative access to the plains. Officially renamed the B.P. Koirala Highway, the Sindhuli road had been put on a 30-year hold by the Panchayat government. Work resumed after the restoration of democracy, with grant assistance from the Government of Japan, which forced Nepal to accept a single-lane road. Given Kathmandu\'s vulnerability to being cut off. It may also be a good idea to broaden the B.P. Koirala Highway into a double-lane link to Bardibas in the plains, which a road engineer says, may still be possible.
Other alternative roads to the south include the 40-year-old Tika Bhairab road, heading due south from the Valley to Hetauda. This was also a B.P. Koirala project, and was abandoned after his government was overthrown by King Mahendra in 1961.
The alignment still exists, and can easily be upgraded to highway status. The road, now officially called Kanti Highway, has now become the pet project of the Patan mayor, Buddhi Raj Bajracharya, who is said to want to open the access so Patan can benefit from the taxes it can impose.
The government has allocated Rs 10 million for the road in this year\'s budget, but that won\'t even build 2 km. In 1998, the government had invited BOOT participation but there were no takers. The South Koreans had helped in the detailed survey and design of this highway, perhaps with a view" to getting the construction contract from possible grant-assistance financing, but the project was scrapped because of the East Asian economic crisis.
Another shortcut to the plains would be to build a 27-km stretch of highway to connect Pharping with Kulekhani. This would open access to the south along the old foot-trail that goes via Bhimpedi.
For the future, there are some grandiose plans:
A road tunnel connecting Thankot with Bhainse and a dedicated highway thereafter till Hetauda was dreamt up by a Norwegian team. The Japanese were also interested before they took up the Sindhuli Highway. In 1999, a private party showed interest in taking it up as a BOT Project, but the proposal is now languishing in the files of the Ministry of Physical Planning and Construction.
The ambitious Bagmati Rail scheme, proposed by former chief engineer of the Department of Road, Birendra Keshari Pokhrel, and civil engineer Shankar Nath Rimal, to connect the valley with the tarai by a rail line along the course of Bagmati river. The proposal needs much more serious attention than it has got so far. A mass-transit system would be less polluting and more economical, but one reason it has been ignored could be the paranoia in Kathmandu about being swamped by Indians.
The Hetauda-Kathmandu Ropeway, which is rotting away, can be refurbished and used efficiently to transport goods. Or, even a replacement of this ancient system by a more modern substitute could be considered. If there is one project that could be effectively privatised it is this one.
When the Arniko Highway to Tibet was built in the late sixties, the Indian media went wild speculating over the possibility of Chinese tanks rumbling into Kathmandu (and then onto India) at short notice. The then Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista\'s retort to that was that communism does not travel by road. Apparently, neither do daily necessities, as Nepalis realised to their chagrin when the road to the north proved to be useless during the "economic blockade" imposed by India in 1989-90.
The reality is that Arniko Highway is prone to landslides and difficult to keep open all year round. Add to that the difficulty in traversing long distances to reach any town of economic significance or a sea port in China, and you have a highway that is turning out to be a white elephant in terms of maintenance. The cost of rehabilitating the badly damaged Arniko Highway is so high that a Swiss grant has been obtained to implement it.
A second route recently proposed by the Chinese government envisages extending the existing road to Dhunche upto Kyirong. Nepali traders believe that this road will be more economical than the Amiko Highway since the vertical distance to Tibet will be drastically reduced. And once you reach the high plateau, it is easy going.