Safa tempo seems to be the only type of vehicle unfazed by the ongoing fuel embargo. How did it get popularised?
I was a lecturer in Thapathali Campus in 1993 when a group of Americans from USAID came to us with a proposal to replace the older diesel-based Bikram Tempos with energy-efficient electric tempos. We built the first prototype at a makeshift workspace at the campus and replaced the engine while keeping most of the body intact.
Lots of names were thrown around casually after the first prototype was ready. Some suggested ‘Swachha Yatayat’ but finally ‘Safa Tempo’ was finalised because it was simple and easy to remember. All of this happened before the government’s decision to remove Vikram tempos from the street. This was just a pilot project when we proposed it to PL Singh, the mayor of Kathmandu then. After DANIDA and US Embassy got involved in the project, the tempos finally started their service to the general public.
There were talks about manufacturing the tempos here in Nepal but that didn’t happen. What was the reason?
It was just a whim. Yes, there were talks and the National Planning Commission was involved but it didn’t happen. Another interesting project I was working on though was using ethanol as a substitute for petrol. We bought clean spirit with the purity of 96.5 % and ran our bikes on it for six months. Shri Ram Sugar Mills donated us 1000 litres of ethanol, which my colleagues and I tried to popularise as a substitute for petrol and diesel. But it never really caught on. I tried to revive the project when Ram Sharan Mahat was the Finance Minister and again when Baburam Bhattarai was the Finance Minister. In the end, we realised that unless Nepal Oil Corporation showed interest and involvement, there was no chance of the project succeeding.
“The gist of the problem is we have never really increased the capacity of our bureaucracy.”
You have worked in a top, decision-making level position. Why did these projects never materialise, even with your involvement?
It’s all about execution and implementation. Everyone, from the farmers of Bajura and the shopkeepers of Sarlahi to those in the planning commission, knows what needs to be done for the development of the nation. What we don’t know is how to actually do it.
As far as the doing part is involved, the gist of the problem is we have never really increased the capacity of our bureaucracy. Most of the bureaucrats, the civil servants, are mostly the sons of farmers. There are only two risks that can challenge the farmers; one is inadequate rainfall and the other is heavy rainfall.
Our civil servants should actually be well-versed with the repercussions a delay in, say, the processing of files could have for the entire nation. But the only thing they care about is the yearly harvest and his crop.
The other thing is our development partners like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank take our bureaucrats abroad for training them in several programmes like nuclear safety, climate change budgeting and social empowerment. But what about training and analysis in projects in our own backyard like financial analysis of our hydropower projects or say, a contract for pipeline to deliver gasoline? Capacity building is happening to wrong people and for wrong reasons. It’s more than a quick getaway than a capacity building exercise.
So what needs to be done to correct this trend?
There needs to be a marriage between bureaucracy and the private sector. Without it, like a household hampered by a failed marriage, our country can never really prosper.
The bureaucrats think of the private sector as an entity established only to earn profits but what options do they have after going through all the problems created by bureaucracy? The private sector draws large margins when risk is involved and hence, there is no competitiveness and things like favoritism and monopoly take shape and not even the private sector can deliver.
Moreover, our experts only do the talking. For example, the same company which never completed a much smaller project several years back wanted to bag the tender for the Fast-Track project linking Nijgadh and Kathmandu. On top of that, as if to hide its incompetence, they turned to ultra-nationalism by saying how the project should be headed by a purely Nepali team. This is the state we are in.
What is your stand on the fast track?
We need to borrow the expertise and skills from foreigners and go ahead with the project in such a way that it does not become a burden to the nation’s economy and it’s handed to the government of Nepal in 25 years.
How important is the fast-track project for Nepal?
More than its importance in strengthening the nation’s infrastructure, I think the project is important in restoring the hope of the youth and make them stay in Nepal.
Nepal has experienced an economic growth rate of 7% only once in all of its history and only because there was a stable government. Unfortunately, the civil war ensued immediately and certain sections were restricted only to certain spheres. The presence of the government was restricted to the cities and the district headquarters, the private sector within cities and in the villages only INGOs were present.
Every year, roughly 4-5 lakh youths are ready for the job market. Not counting those in India, there are nearly five million youths from our working force serving in many countries worldwide because there are no wealth generating activities here in Nepal. To correct this trend, the importance of the project and similar projects like these cannot be stressed more.