Apprehensions about mega projects

M Fouzul Kabir Khan | Update:

Upon ascending to power, the present government took up several projects, large in size and cost. These ambitious projects have been the hallmark of the government’s development mantra. Implementation of these projects would have been a boost for the country, but as the government’s term nears an end, progress in the sector, as in many others, remains lack luster. Most of the projects have been delayed and expenditure has increased. Reports of the government’s Implementation, Monitoring, and Evaluation Division (IMED) as well as the media indicate that these projects will not be implemented any time soon.

Padma Bridge

Expenditure on the much-awaited Padma Bridge has tripled to near Tk 300 billion. In 2007 the estimated cost of the project was Tk 101.62 billion. The road transport and bridges minister has said that 50 per cent of the project is complete, adding that there were certain problems related to the depth of the river as well as technical glitches. Out of 41 spans, one has been put in place. The project is being implemented with domestic funding.

Rooppur nuclear power plant

It has been said that by 2024, the long-awaited Rooppur nuclear power plant will generate 2400 MW of electricity. Like Padma Bridge, this project was to have been completed by 2018. A deal was signed with Russian firm Rosatam for the implementation of this project at a cost of US$ 12.6 billion. This capital expenditure per megawatt of electricity in this ongoing Russian-funded project is US$ 5 million. Yet in neighbouring India, expenditure per megawatt in the Russian-made Kudankulam nuclear power plant is US 3 million.

Dhaka metro-rail project

Only 12 per cent of this Tk 220 billion project has been implemented so far over the past four years. The civil engineering work on the project has been given to Italian-Thai Public Limited Company and the depot land development work has been awarded to Tokyo Construction Limited. This project, funded by JICA, is supposed to be completed by 2020.

Rampal coal-fired power plant

This 1320 MW coal-fired power plant project, apprehended to be an environmental threat to the Sundarbans, was supposed to have been completed by 2016. The project is being implemented by the Indian firm Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) and the rescheduled completion date is 2021. Other than opposition from the environmentalists, a 2016 report of the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis states that despite various subsidies, power generation costs of this project is 32 per cent higher than the power generated by Bangladesh. They estimate that a subsidy of US$ 20 million will have to be paid to maintain the navigability of the river to transport coal for the project.

Payra deep-sea port

According to British consultant firm HR Wallingford, this project will cost an estimated US$ 20 billion. Approved in 2015, this project was to have been completed by 2018. However, progress on the physical infrastructure of the project has been 2.1 per cent and the completion timeline has been shifted to 2022.

Other projects

There has been little progress on the Matarbari power plant project, the Padma Bridge railway link and the Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar-Gundum project. Work on two mega projects, Sonadia deep-sea port and the LNG terminal, remain restricted to the files only.

Where is the problem?

What problem is there is the mega projects are somewhat delayed? The objective of project implementation is to increase social resources. Delays in implementation curtail the benefits of the projects. And increases in expenditure reduce the projects net value, sometimes pushing it to negative. It thus needs to be pragmatically assessed whether eventually such projects remain beneficial at all for the country.

Why is this happening?

The government justifies the situation by pointing out that mega projects meet with invariable delays and price hikes all over the world. Again, there are specific reasons for the delay in some projects. The World Bank’s shortsighted decision delayed the Padma Bridge project. The killing of Japanese nationals in the Holey Artisan militant attack held up the metro-rail project. However, none of this can justify the exorbitant increase in project expenditure, tripled in some cases, and the inordinate days, by over five years in certain instances. And it looks like there will be further increase in costs and delays on the mega projects. Devising and implementing projects is intrinsically tied to the country’s political economy.

Interestingly, many of the projects were to be completed n 2018, that is, the year before the election. It is apparent that the timeframe of these mega projects have been determined on political considerations. And it hardly seems that we have cut our coat according to our cloth when it comes to the US$ 20 billion Payra deep-sea port, given our limited resources.

However, the main spanner in the works is our inefficiency in devising and implementing mega projects, as well as lack of transparency in appointing contractors. Why should uncertainties now come to light about the state of the river Padma? Mostly Chinese and Indian contractors are awarded contracts in our country. Both countries have good construction firms, but they hardly come here. India’s BHEL and China’s Sino-Hydro are hardly reputable firms when it comes to their work in Bangladesh. Yet such firms are repeatedly given contracts here. All sorts of manipulations are carried out to ensure these firms get the project contracts, despite various shortcomings.

The way ahead

A study of the consultant firm Keystone points out that the majority of top businesspersons in the country place importance on more essential projects which can be implemented speedily and at less cost, rather than the mega projects. This needs to be taken into cognizance.

Certain foreign persons feel that the present political leadership in Bangladesh looks to the Singapore model, of development over democracy. In fact, many within the country too maintain that once the mega projects are completed, the country will become Singapore and then democracy will be firmly in place.

I can speak out from my three years of teaching experience at the National University of Singapore. We were amazed at the skills of optometrist Vivian Balakrishnan when our ambassador Kaiser Morshed’s wife Suraiya bhabi consulted him. Later, in 2001, someone asked me to arrange a visit to a good physician there. I immediately called up Balakrishnan only to find that he had been inducted into the cabinet. He is presently Singapore’s foreign minister. The system to selecting political leadership in Singapore is based on extraordinary academic merit, exemplary success in career, joining the People’s Action Party, being elected as MP, and finally becoming a minister. None of the ministers are involved in business. They come from various professional fields where they have excelled. Choosing top bureaucrats is done in the same way. Qualified persons are chosen even before a post falls vacant.

The prime minister at the time Lee Kuan Yew once said that he spent 20 per cent of his time ‘head hunting, to find the best person for the job.’ So if Bangladesh wants to follow the Singapore model, it must also follow the model of merit and professionalism, discard nepotism and corruption. It will in no way be possible to make Bangladesh into Singapore or to implement mega projects with unqualified, cunning, unprofessional and corrupt ministers and bureaucrats.

* M Fouzul Kabir Khan is a former secretary, professor and mega project analyst. This article, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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