About 18 potential bidders from big and powerful Indian companies like Tata, Mahendra, Lanco, Ambuja and Hindustan Construction were amongst others who had shown interest to start the Education City project, but at the end its just one bidder, Infinity InfoTech Parks Ltd which is now collaborating with Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (ILFS).
There were transparency issues when Infinity first mooted the 1,000-acre project idea in 2009 that led the government to drop the idea of inviting Infinity and then forming DHI Infra to take up the Education City project.
DHI Infra says that companies which had shown interest earlier backed out because of several reasons like the slowing down of the Indian economy especially in the infrastructure area.
Further, Karma (PhD), the general manager of projects, DHI Infra, said that with Bhutanese laws not being clear to the Indian counterparts was one reason for the reluctance. Moreover, since public private partnership projects were being introduced into the country for the first time, many felt there were risks involved.
Now the sole bidder is a joint consortium between Infinity InfoTech Parks Ltd and Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (ILFS). Infinity, being an IT based company does not have experience in building an Education City, but, the collaboration with ILFS, which has experience in infrastructural development sectors like airports, education, power and roads, they become a good contender.
But now with just one bidder, Infinity, transparency issues are surfacing again.
Opposition Leader Tshering Tobgay said the government will be well advised to declare all conflicts of interests if family members are involved in the project. “They must be investigated to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest,” he told The Bhutanese.
Palden Tshering, the head of Chundu enterprises, was the local representative of Infinity. Dasho Palden Thinley, the prime minister’s son was also involved with the project when it was first discussed toward the end of 2009.
In the recent parliament session, the education city bill was adopted and the opposition leader feels that passing a legislation to benefit any specific project was not a good idea; it is not in keeping with the principles of good governance.
“But when that legislation undermines and overrules other laws, rules and policies, we should be alarmed; we should be suspicious that laws are being formulated to allow a specific project to break other laws and circumvent the government’s own rules and policies,” he said.
The project is not financially viable
“The project is not financially viable nor is it consistent with our social and cultural priorities. Therefore, the government should stop forcing the project,” the opposition leader said.
Even after many road shows and serious marketing, only one company came to bid for the project which went on to show how unattractive the project really was.
“Tertiary education is important. And if foreign investors are interested, investors with proven credentials, we should invite them. But there’s no need to sell ourselves short in order to get the attention of potential foreign investors. Instead, improve the quality of our existing colleges – the RUB colleges, and private colleges, like the RTC. Also, encourage (and provide subsidies to) our own people to establish colleges which will provide high quality education,” he said.
Kinga Tshering, the CEO of DHI INFRA said the Education City was not a commercial project and that there were no economic fast returns.For this project to be stabilized and sustainable it will take another 10 to 15 years. “Here we are looking at a long term and from our study we can say that in the long run it will be financially viable.”
Kinga Tshering said initially there will be challenges like the cost of construction, but, with time it will stabilize and now with the signing of MoUs and tie-up with Columbia University, Indian Institute of Ahmadabad and Raffles Institute in Singapore, they were clear and positive in their visions.
But the opposition leader said the government has not listened to concerns of the people.
“The public at large have repeatedly denounced the education city project, but the government insists on bulldozing its way,” he said.
When The Bhutanese spoke to some business people, they shied away saying that at this juncture whatever they said, even if its positive criticism, would be labeled as politicking.
The empowered group
The coming week, the technical and financial report submitted by the consortium will be put up to an empowered group by DHI.
The empower group comprises of the minister of works and human settlement and also the chairperson of the group Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, secretaries from the ministry of economic affairs, education and the Gross National Happiness Commission, the ceo of DHI Infra and the Thimphu mayor.
If the report is accepted, then the bidder will have to submit the detail project report by March and the master plan in 12 months.