-This article was originally published by Sneha Pradhan in the Himalayan Times on May 13, 2018
Biratnagar Metropolitan City (BMPC), the current capital of State 1, used to once be the industrial capital of the entire nation. While we still see a bustling business environment in the city, the numerous shut and relocated businesses indicate underlying problems that stifle entrepreneurial growth. A number of factors including but not limited to lack of skilled labor, proper infrastructure and public service delivery such as electricity are some of the known hindrances to business operators in the area. While many local governments across the country still wait for clear policy frameworks from the federal and state governments on what they can do, their new political leaderships could already work towards enhancing local business environment by investing on support infrastructures. For Biratnagar, that could translate to prioritizing the following areas:
Tourism may not seem like an intuitive opportunity in Biratnagar; however, the growing investors in the region would differ. Although industries like hotels almost wholly depend on Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism at the moment, they are hopeful that there is immense potential to tap into. A lack of significant touristic attractions makes it unlikely (currently) for Biratnagar to thrive as a final tourist destination but turning it into a transit route and holding tourists in the city for at least a short period of time seems to be a viable option. Local tourism entrepreneurs believe that operating flights from Biratnagar to and from Lukla and Pokhara, or even operating mountain flghts from Biratnagar itself would create new business opportunities in the city. This would be a great way to promote tourism in the city. Despite being a gateway to four countries, the city lacks an immigration office, which if established at the Jogbani border could create an additional inflow of tourists. Creating a unique selling point to separate itself from its immediate neighbors in India – UP, Bihar and West Bengal – via a happening night scene complete with hotels, restaurants, pubs, discos and casinos could further bolster tourism in Biratnagar.
A collaborative effort with the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) can be extremely helpful in solving some of the pressing problems relating to electricity service in Biratnagar. Firstly, the residents of the city suffer from low voltage electricity resulting from overloaded grids. This has led to additional charges of upto thirty percent for electricity consumption. A coordinated effort with the NEA should be carried out to develop distribution lines.
It is difficult even for a modern coffee shop (a growing culture in the city) to get a three-phase line necessary to operate their appliances. Investing on electricity sector is thus a key to promoting new businesses as well as facilitating expansion of existing small businesses.
Many light-outs occur in the city during the windy season as branches fall off and break electrical connections. A very inexpensive but effective initiative the BMPC could undertake is working with the NEA to identify risk-prone areas and trimming trees before the windy season. Such preparedness could cut light-outs substantially. This would not only save businesses and factories from having to consume expensive alternative fuel (for operating generators) but also prevent loss of productive labor hours. For a city that employs wage labourers that make around Rs. 50 per hour by thousands, this means huge economic cost. This is a classic example of how small investments on preparedness could contribute to substantial gains.
While improving traffic management is already a difficult task, it is more so during rainy seasons when roads are flooded with waist-deep water levels which cause a lot of industries to lose their businesses due to the affected transportation of goods. Therefore, developing local roads would be a vital reform agenda. Maintenance of Singha Bridge that handles a large amount of traffic would also be a priority. As a major highway passes right through the city, BMPC could invest on a bypass for heavy vehicles that would both reduce vehicular congestion and the city’s pollution levels.
Moreover, constructing new leisure parks with security arrangements including CCTVs could help local businesses grow. Such areas would further promote an evening culture in the city and encourage new economic activities in the process through (say) various street food stalls and other services within the park periphery. Additionally, the city has also been looking to build an exhibition hall that would allow industries to showcase and efficiently market their products. Better lighting infrastructure in major areas of the city would improve mobility in the late hours. Installing a cricket turf in the middle of the existing football ground would also help extend the seasonal businesses around the ground grow.
It is encouraging that in Biratnagar the local government has expressed a commitment to address a lot of these problems faced by the city’s business community. It has hosted a number of engagements with key stakeholders to brainstorm ideas for improving business environment at local level. Like always, translating commitments to implementation is the key. But more importantly, other cities could also learn from Biratnagar on mapping their key opportunities and gaps, and how they could contribute to promoting local economic growth even in the midst of lack of a clear policy framework.