As an engineer specializing in water sanitation and urban development, Neeta is well aware of the long arduous process it takes to change a city. But she’d rather persevere than lose herself to pure profitmaking.
An engineer’s perspective on patience and optimism
“Non-dreamers might think this is an insurmountable task. If you want immediate gratification from your projects so you can tick your boxes and move on or an eager project evaluator insisting on transformative development impacts in one project span, then this is not your cup of tea.”
Neeta Pokhrel, a senior urban development specialist for the South Asia Regional Department (SARD), penned this last year as part of a blog on Kolkata’s transformation. She described the challenging yet rewarding experience of seeing an almost 20-year-long urban planning work come to fruition. The statement offers a glimpse of her hopeful personality, and true enough she reveals in the succeeding interview why she left the private sector for development: it was soulless.
Neeta, an environmental engineer who has since worked for ADB for 13 years as both a consultant and staff, likes to work for what she believes in and puts in the extra effort. Similar with the Kolkata Environmental Improvement Investment Program, she has contributed to many urban development and water supply and sanitation projects in South Asia that have taken time and patience to develop and implement, such as the North Eastern Region Capital Cities Development Investment Program and the Bihar Urban Development Investment Program in India, the Third Small Towns Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project in Nepal, and the Melamchi Water Supply Project and Kathmandu Valley Water Supply Projects in Nepal. Currently, she’s processing an innovative rural water supply project for the state of West Bengal in India.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that she also enjoys making jewelry. Any spare time she has left from work, travels, and family time is dedicated to this craft. She says as an engineer she likes to work with her hands. The process of creating is ingrained as much as the tenacity to cultivate or form change. And in the same way she shunned financial gains from the building industry, she doesn’t sell her pieces. She only does so whenever there’s a disaster, such as the Nepal earthquake and Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, and she then donates the proceeds for charity. “It makes me feel good,” she says – and that might as well explain her work in helping developing Asia.
“You push, push, push, but suddenly you find this person who for petty reasons is holding the entire city's development ransom. That at times makes me lose my fire a bit, which is quite rare. Still, I’m a die-hard optimist.”
Senior Urban Development Specialist
Where are you from originally and how did you end up in ADB?
Neeta: I come from Nepal and I was with the private sector before I joined ADB. I was working with the construction industry in Australia as a project manager in urban infrastructure projects. I’m an environmental engineer and I specialize in water supply and sanitation. My work has mostly been planning and implementing projects, and facilitating and introducing reforms in the public water utilities of our region, either through corporatization and institutional reforms or public-private partnerships.
In 2003, I was exploring options to work in development so I wrote to the country director of the Nepal Resident Mission, saying how I wanted to move back to Asia and if there were any opportunities. He contacted me and said that there were some consulting opportunities with the institutional reforms side of the Melamchi Water Supply Project, so did I want to start as a consultant? That made me come and work for ADB.
There’s a blog you wrote which had a great line on working without instant gratification. Do you consider yourself a patient person?
Neeta: The project I mentioned there is still ongoing. We’ve been working with KMC [the Kolkata Municipal Corporation] for the last 20 years. These are different projects done one at a time. Kolkata is almost as big as Cambodia. The official population is five million but the floating population is another three or four million, so it’s a big, dense – the thirteenth most dense city in the world – and old city. Full of character and life. It was the capital of the British government before it moved to Delhi. And nobody before us had helped KMC rehabilitate and upgrade their sewerage and drainage, water supply, and other urban facilities and services that the British originally laid more than 150 years ago.
Doing reforms in the urban sector is very challenging, especially in such a large and complex city. Any talk of tariffs and reform and charging people is very difficult. So most financing and development partners may be skeptical and not ready to engage with the city on a long-term basis, as each step towards reforms may take a long time. Even for us in ADB, we have a DMF [or a design monitoring framework] for the project, on a project-by-project basis—as opposed to a long-term DMF developed for the city where results show after multiple projects or decades of involvement, which should be the way to help a city’s long-term development if you ask me. The evaluators want to see all the agreed targets achieved project by project, otherwise it doesn’t qualify as a successful project.
In our case, we need to be relentlessly working with such large cities, projects after projects, which would finally put all the pieces together and complete the reforms needed. For instance, we put the best effort to reform the water services through metering households and raising revenues for the city under the first project. It only worked partially. So we went back and have been working again over the last decade with the city, looking at options and ways to complete the reforms. Now we are very happy at the speed at which the reforms have taken off. It has made a huge impact. The city, state government, and central government are all appreciative, because most funding or development partners don’t have that patience. ADB inherently as an organization – same in Nepal and wherever I’ve worked with ADB as a consultant and staff for more than 13 years – is a resilient and patient organization. We just stay course and keep supporting. Even Myanmar, we were the first to engage and go back when they opened up. We get this feedback from many other places. So it’s not just me, it’s the organization.
And what made you go into this line of work? What inspires you?
Neeta: Because I like infrastructure development, and it’s a natural fit because ADB is an infrastructure bank. Private sector for me was a little bit soulless. I was doing well. It was nice and comfortable, but I just felt I needed more with my life and time. My last job was as a development manager for mixed-use urban development, where we would build commercial buildings with residential buildings. We were building greenfield mixed-use development with expensive buildings; though with high energy ratings and good ecologically sustainable features, it still felt heartless for me. Before that I was part of the corporation’s infrastructure group, where we built design-build-operate water and sewage treatment plants for public utilities in partnership with private operators. But again everything I did was for profit of the private sector. I wanted to come back to Asia because I’m Asian and I know about poverty. I wanted to help improve the living conditions of people in Asia.
What can you say about the development of South Asia since you started?
Neeta: The needs are just so big. I can see gradual improvement in capacity. India in 2005 the capacity of the urban entities working with us, compared to now, was very low. So of course it has improved a lot. But in terms of people needing water, needing better living environment, funds, knowledge, and capacities to make the cities resilient, people needing sanitation, there’s still a lot to do. This is why working in South Asia is very challenging and exciting.
Now conversely, what gets you riled up working in this field?
Neeta: For me out of this 13 or 14 years of development experience and since I’ve worked with so many entities – as a consultant you move a lot and have the privilege to work in several projects – what really makes me mad are people, be it government counterparts, consultants, or just anybody who impedes the efforts and work to improve people’s lives for personal gains. Within the ecosystem of people involved there’s inevitably one or two who would try to pull the project down for personal gains or for lack of commitment. You push, push, push, but suddenly you find this person who for petty reasons is holding the entire city’s development ransom. That at times makes me lose my fire a bit, which is quite rare. Still, I’m a die-hard optimist.
Aside from water and sanitation, what are your major interests outside of work?
Neeta: I make jewelry. I design and do silversmithing. I learned it in Australia and in Nepal. I’ve always been interested in silver jewelry. I like it because you work with your hands. I used to dance a lot before, and then when I had my kid I somehow stopped dancing regularly. So as a hobby I picked up jewelry making. I was always interested in picking bits of silver, bits of jewelry I would cop and reshape, along with semiprecious stones that I would string them with.
As for silver, it’s because I didn’t wear gold until recently. Old age has perhaps soften me a bit and now I do wear it occasionally. But during my younger days, it was against my principle. Even at my wedding I wore only silver – though gold painted to match it with my golden saris. People wear a lot of gold in my country and in India. Wherever one went for parties or events it was all gold-laden people. Families would take loans to pay for their daughters’ gold jewelry in weddings. So I swore to myself that I wouldn’t wear gold, and I used to go looking for silver jewelry, especially those with some ethnic or Nepali touch. I didn’t find many because again all the interesting ones were made in gold. Jewelers aren’t working with silver because there’s no money in it. I basically started collecting, and I learned how to chop and burn. I don’t have a place to fire up here but I have an amateur’s space and tools. And I don’t sell. It’s my need to create and a philanthropic outlet.