Ever wondered who those people in fluorescent orange safety jackets are, working away diligently by the sides of the highways on holidays and even bandas?
They are lengthworkers. That is the ungainly name given to the men and women who are hired locally to carry out routine maintenance on Nepal's
roads. Lengthworkers have become so vital to reliable road maintenance in Nepal that donor agencies are interested in replicating the model in other developing countries.
Lengthworkers were introduced to Nepal 10 years ago under the Swiss-funded Strengthened Maintenance Division Program (SMDP). Highways are not just difficult and expensive to build in Nepal but because of the terrain and weather, they are as expensive to maintain. SMDP cashed in on the Swiss experience with the Lamosangu-Jiri road and expanded the lengthworker system to other highways.
Today, the Department of Roads employs 1,600 lengthworkers for routine maintenance of roads. Local villagers from the road neighbourhood are employed on a daily-wage basis of Rs 90-150 a day and deployed to look after
up to three km length of road each. (That's why they are called 'lengthworkers').
SMDP's Maintenance Adviser, Devendra Dhar Pradhananga, pioneered the lengthworker concept and still conducts training. The work is mainly clearing drains, sweeping the road, cutting bushes, cleaning road furniture and turf embankments. "We were improving the technical aspects of highway construction in Nepal but were weak in the social side, and this was having a negative impact on road maintenance," Pradhananga told us, "so the lengthworkers became the go-between between us and people living along the roads."
Supervisors oversee four to six lengthworkers within a 15-20 km stretch. The workers are provided with hand tools, wheelbarrows, safety jackets, safety flags, helmets and raincoats. Lengthworkers take pride in the upkeep of their road sections. "It's a great way to keep people employed and reduce pavement deterioration cheaply," says Bhoj Bahadur Dhakal, chief of the Road Division in Butwal.
Their orange jackets and flags make these industrious lengthworkers highly visible. But few highway users stop to talk to them or thank them for what they are doing. "We need the public to realise we are actually working for them too," says Padam B Praja, who is a lengthworker at Jogimara on the Prithibi Highway. His main problem is that villagers believe they have a right to do what they want with the road. Drains are misused for irrigation and that reduces the lifespan of the highway's surface.
The conflict has made the work more dangerous because of landmines and lengthworkers often find themselves trapped between the army and the rebels. "The Maoists regard us as HMG staff whereas the soldiers think we are rebel sympathisers," says Dharma Sapkota a supervisor working at Krishna Bhir. Recently, Sapkota was beaten after soldiers accused him of helping the Maoists plant a mine.
Because a lot of their work is to patch potholes, security forces worried about landmines often suspect lengthworkers. And the Maoists blame them if they remove rebel obstructions along the highway. For their own safety, lengthworker flags have been changed from red to orange. Min Bahadur Tamang was caught in the crossfire between Maoists and the army in Hetauda and says it was his highly-visible orange jacket that saved him because he was recognised as a lengthworker.
"People must understand how difficult road maintenance is. No work is complete without participation and support," says Director General of the DoR, Durga Prasad KC.
Five percent of all lengthworkers are women. "Equal pay with men is the best part of our job," laughs Sita Thapa Magar, whose husband is also a lengthworker in Dhading.
Expenditure on routine road maintenance carried out by lengthworkers make up 10 percent of the total road maintenance budget which amounts to about Rs 100,000 per km. And besides keeping roads in good shape for less money, the system also contributes to poverty reduction among the rural population along the highways.
Division Road Office Lahan has decided that mangos are the way to go. It worked with the local Buddha Women's Cooperative whose members planted 700 mango trees along a seven km road section from Chaparadi to Pathariya on the Mahendra Highway.
By mutual agreement, they will have to look after the mango trees for the next five years and can harvest the mangoes in return. This is one of the Department of Roads' programs that is designed to mobilise the public in maintaining road reserves while encouraging community empowerment.