Bangladesh is now one of the most promising countries in the world, with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growing over 6 per cent for the last decade. Its GDP size has currently crossed USD 411 billion mark, suggesting that Bangladesh’s prospect in terms of economic development will be worth-noting.
The entrepreneurial spirit resulting from the Liberation War has propelled Bangladesh’s remarkable economic growth and enabled it to graduate from the least developed country to a developing nation. Bangladesh is no longer a dependent economy. Foreign aid makes up less than two per cent of its GDP and the positive macro-economic trends have been matched by improved human development indicators and reduction in poverty.
Since all development projects are funded by public money, holding all the stakeholders involved in designing, monitoring and implementing the projects accountable is the only way to ensure that these projects serve the people. In absence of accountability, most of our projects are burdened with repeated time and cost escalation, exposing not only the inefficiency of our officials concerned but also opening up the floodgate of corruption and malpractices.
In 2017, a World Bank report revealed that Bangladesh spends a much higher amount than India and China on road construction because of deadlines and cost overruns and lack of competitive biddings. A four-lane highway costs between USD 1.1 and 1.3 million in India and between USD 1.3 and 1.6 million in China. In comparison, the estimated construction cost of a kilometer Rangpur- Hatikumrul four-lane highway was USD 6.6 million, USD 7 million for Dhaka-Sylhet four-lane highway, USD 11.9 million for Dhaka-Mawa four-lane highway. According to the report, despite Bangladesh having the highest road construction cost in the world, the quality roads are hardly built owing to faulty design and lack of proper oversight of the authorities concerned. On top of this, authorities concerned and the construction firms involved in constructing the roads and highways are seldom held accountable for the sub-standard work.
Nowadays we see a sizeable number of businessmen are turning into politicians with 65 per cent of its total members in the incumbent Parliament. These businessmen-turned politicians are now involved directly or indirectly in many construction firms. So, when they willingly or unwillingly fail to meet the work standard mentioned in the work order or schedule, no one dares to make them accountable. Most construction firms, having political clouts, rarely ensure quality road construction as if they are immune from all rules and regulations pertaining to civil construction. Needless to say, in most cases, engineers who must be present at the construction sites to ensure quality work as specified in the bidding documents remain absent.
In response to a question as to why road construction cost in Bangladesh is so much high, the minister concerned told the parliament in 2019 that it was due to differences in soil condition. It is, however, hard to believe that the soil condition between Bangladesh and its next-door neighbour India is so different that Bangladesh’s road construction cost would be 2 to 10 times higher than India’s.
Let’s close the chapter on road construction. What about other development projects? Certainly, the higher costs involving most of the projects related to other than roads and highways cannot be blamed on soil condition. Let us take a look at the Payra Bridge Project. According to recent reports published by the mainstream dailies, the bridge is set to cost three to five times more than what it was originally estimated and it has taken five years longer than the original deadline. The project was supposed to be completed within December 2016 at a cost of Tk. 413.28 crore. However, it has finally been completed at a cost of around Tk. 1,447 crore. According to one official, the feasibility study conducted before the project’s approval was done poorly. As a result, when consultants prepared detailed designs, they had to bring a lot of changes against the initial plan, resulting in massive cost escalation. Was anyone held accountable for this mess-up?
According to a report published by the Planning Ministry, “The CDA has failed to provide important documents, including those on purchase, vouchers and meeting minutes.” The report also blamed the CDA for not carrying out an annual audit of expenses, which is mandatory for the release of project funds. Highlighting the methodological flaw of the work, the report was quoted to have said that the infrastructural work of the project had started before the renovation of the canals and as such water-logging had increased rather than decreased after the work was done. Besides, as per findings of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industries (CCCI), Khatunganj traders incurred a loss of over Tk. 514 crore due to water-logging in 2020. Who is going to compensate for this?
There are countless other such examples, where time and cost overruns involved in any project have become the order of the day. But it is not incompetence that is the main cause, corruption is not less important.
The only way to get rid of this ever-increasing time and cost overruns and corruption is to take stern action against those found responsible for making faulty designs, poor monitoring and implementing the development projects, which is badly missing at present. Equally important is to put in place a system to hold concerned public officials and contractors accountable for misusing public money and for their ill-conceived and ill-executed development scheme.
The writer is a retired Deputy General Manager, BSCIC