Major road works in progress offers some GDP growth hope as other parts of the economy suffer

Limited bidder’s participation, interrupted flow of materials, shortage of laborers and machine parts, frequent lockdowns leading to cost escalation since demobilization and re-mobilization, are some of the challenges caused by the pandemic in the construction sector.

The projects in the high-risk zones (southern dzongkhags) were the most affected.

Ministry of Work and Human Settlement (MoWHS), having to deal with physical infrastructure, has been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Nevertheless, MoWHS has ploughed through the challenges by adjusting with the simplified RGoB Procurement Rules, using revised COVID-Bhutan Schedule of Rates (BSR) by facilitating the contractors wherever possible. With the interruption of flow of materials and machine parts from outside, and shortage of specialized machine operators, the road construction and many other projects were hugely impacted.

Citing a few projects, road projects, like construction of Phuentshong-Chamukna road, improvement of Chamkuna-Amochu road and the construction of rigid pavement on Rinchending-Pasakha road were gravely impacted by the pandemic due to series of lockdowns in Phuentsholing.

For the revised12th Five Year Plan (FYP) the allocated budget is Nu 20.89 billion (bn) of which Nu 13.25 bn outlay is for the MoWHS, Nu 5 bn for Water Flagship Program (WFP) while Nu 2.67 bn is for 4 quarantine centers.

The total capital expenditure of the Ministry for the four fiscal years (2018-2022) is Nu 11.7 bn of which Nu 1.8 bn is for the fiscal year 2021-2022.  The expenditure is inclusive of WFP, quarantine centers, Thromde works and GC roads. However, the expenditure on Thromde works and GC roads are not included in the MoWHS outlay.

MoWHS Minister Dorji Tshering said that the overall improvement of the Northern-East-West-Highway (NEWH) was started in the 11th FYP, excluding the Ura – Lingmithang stretch.

He said, “It was excluded with the notion that the Shingkhar-Gorgan highway would be constructed. Much later, it was found that the road was not feasible, thereby, the ministry took up the widening of the remaining left out stretch of NEWH in the 12th FYP.”

As of now, Lyonpo said that there are eight ongoing contract packages on that stretch, and the road condition, for now, is not good as the construction works are in progress, however, the road conditions are expected to improve drastically after the completion of the project.

Of the eight packages, five packages are expected to be completed this year and the remaining three packages by next year.

“Construction of the NEWH is being implemented in one of the most difficult site conditions, in terms of weather, topography and vehicles plying on the same road, while improvement works are ongoing, in the absence of a bypass road. Under such conditions, it is difficult to please everyone,” he added. 

The construction of Dewathang-Nganglam and Samrang-Jomotsangkha road are undertaken by Project DANTAK. For the Dewathang-Nganglam the Detailed Project Report (DPR) is being prepared while for Samrang-Jomotsangkha road, the cutting works have been completed. The construction of permanent works, bridges and pavement works are ongoing.

In addition, he said that the improvement works of 43 km between Dewathang-Samdrupcholing is ongoing in four contract packages. One contract package has been completed while remaining three packages are expected to be complete within this financial year.

As for human resources, Lyonpo said that MoWHS in collaboration with Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) has re-organized the structure of the Dzongkhag Engineering and Human Settlement Sector to build professional capacity at the local level.

“However, the nature of work in the dzongkhags is such that it entails carrying out all kinds of works. If we have to professionalize the sector, more number of engineers would be required to fill in various engineering fields,” he added.

As a paradigm of the 13th FYP, Lyonpo said that the ministry in collaboration with dzongkhags and RCSC will definitely study and review all the parameters including the workload to address this recurring issue.

Meanwhile, Lyonpo said that though the pandemic impacted the construction sector, it also imposed on the ministry to explore opportunities within the country, whereby they took the initiative to skill the Bhutanese youth though various projects.

To a large extent, he said, “We are comfortable with cement, sand, steel, HDPE pipes, etc., for the water sector since we have our local manufacturers. However, we are still dependent on sourcing materials from outside. The transportation of construction materials through shortest route possible is challenging, and that adds onto the overall cost.”

The revision of labour rate is also challenging since the labour rate in the market is unregulated with high variance, he said, adding that there is a need for a revision of labour rate under the Labour Act provisions.

Construction normally has the largest share of the GDP.

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