A timely warning to contractors

An important precedent was set earlier this week when the Prime Minister called the contractors executing the Nu 8 bn East-West Highway from Thimphu to Trashigang and asked them to do a good quality job.

The precedent was not so much in the meeting but in the PM warning of stringent checks over the quality of construction including personal checks by the PM himself using a special core sample drill machine.

He warned that those not doing a good job would be held accountable and even be disqualified from similar jobs in the future. Importantly, he also said that the license applications by the same contractor’s family members would also be scrutinized.

The above steps are very important and timely especially since they come from the head of the government.

For too long, Bhutanese contractors have gotten away with poor quality construction, be it in big or small projects.

In the case of road construction most contractors regard it as being highly lucrative. While contractors are definitely entitled to a fair profit the ground reality is that the government is often charged excessively for poor quality work.

This is facilitated by a nexus between the contractors, site engineers and even bureaucrats, whereby after bribing engineers huge amounts are claimed by contractors. The engineer and officials concerned also allow the contractors to get away with poor quality works.

The result often is that the roads start deteriorating far before its lifetime. What happens next is that the government is forced to spend billions every year in the repair and maintenance of such roads.

People using the roads are also inconvenienced and there are further losses to the economy in terms of lost time, higher vehicle maintenance costs and higher fuel bills. One indicator of a badly built road is frequent landslides which causes blockages.

More importantly poorly built roads also costs lives in terms of higher rates of vehicular accidents.

Even with all of the above nobody was held accountable in the past.

At the same time it is sobering to remember that bad roads and infrastructure also have immediate political implications on any elected government. Many poor quality farm roads constructed under the 10th plan were virtually unusable during the monsoons and especially so during the monsoons of 2013 when the General Elections took place. The mud and difficulty in getting to the voting booths would definitely have helped make up many undecided minds.

The culture of poor quality construction is not just limited to roads but in almost all other constructions as well.

Poor quality construction at the same time indicates a deeper problem with the system of allocating and monitoring construction activities.

It is therefore important for the PM to ensure that the performance of bureaucrats and engineers associated with allocating construction tenders and then monitoring the quality are also closely scrutinized.

At one level there may be a need to relook at and reform the entire procurement process along with the monitoring system. There are definitely also technical issues and challenges like shortages of engineers.

However, at another level it is not so much the laws and rules that are the problem but the ethical and work culture of the people in the system from engineers to contractors.

One of the solutions that the PM has partly sounded out is in giving a quality score to a completed project based on easily verifiable parameters. The ability of the contractor to get future works should be based on that score. At the same time the bureaucrats and engineers should also be held accountable.

It is high time that Bhutan start paying attention to not just quantity but also quality.

“Although a large amount of resources are spent, projects may not be accomplished as designed and quality of projects may suffer seriously.” – His Majesty the King at the 107th National Day

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