We have the distinction of spending more money than China and India in road construction per kilometre. A four-lane highway costs upwards of $1.3m and $1.6m in India and China respectively for that measure of road.
In stark contrast, our estimated costs for the same length of road range from $2.5m to $ 11.9m. They relate to Rangpur-Hatikumrul, Dhaka-Sylhet, Dhaka-Mawa, Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Mymensingh four-lane highways.
Shocking and unsustainable as the high cost differentials are vis-à-vis more powerful economies like China and India, our Roads and Highways Department (RHD)owes the public an answer to the question: What factors cost us so dear in paving roads? The only plausible, but untenable because of dubious, inefficient and corruption-smacking handling of projects-explanation comprises time and cost overruns. All this can be pinpointed through just one phrase: Lack of competitive bidding.
The inconvenient truths tend to resurface owing to the RHD's move to reschedule the rates by an increase of 18 per cent across the board. They have found a 'significant gap' in the prices of construction materials with the rates approved in 2015. An upward adjustment is required in costing, it is argued, because the prices of rods and stones have doubled, only price of bitumen remaining stable.
Although the RHD admitted to differences in prices of materials from one zone to another, why that must not be a countervailing factor in levelling down rather than spiking costs is difficult to understand. The RHD has 10 zonal offices covering a wide range of areas, so that instead of 'separate' rates, the estimates should be pegged to mean average prices, allowing for a holistic in the purchase and procurement policy.
Well, if there is lack of bidding, as has been reported ,then the propensity to buying at arbitrary prices will be that much greater.
Several issues arise out of such a by and large indeterminate system with many a loophole. The foremost is whether the new schedule of a raise in rate by a flat 18 per cent is premised on cost and time overrun trends over the years. If that be the case ,which it appears to be, then it must deplored and urgently mitigated. For, it gives a convenient handle to vested quarters to carry on with their business as usual- plucking money from low-lying fruit trees, as it were!
But the most pressing question to ask would be: since the construction costs are among the highest in the world, are our highways or roads of matching quality? Far from it, given their fragile, pot-holed , moon -cratered and water-logged conditions.
This provides compelling reasons to have built-in safe-guards or call them methodologies on the following levels: Strict monitoring of designs; quality control beginning with supervised and accountable purchases and procurements with an accompanying grip over the implementation phases.
The ministry of road transport and bridges together with the RHD is in charge of our arterial infrastructure and they spend huge sums of money on it. Every year new projects come up in tandem with unfinished parts of longer term infrastructure undertakings. The point we all must pursue energetically and have it attended to with a visible sense of urgency is this: Let maintenance of highways and roads receive the top priority it misses out year after year. Adequate allocation of funds must be ensured for the purpose as the first sign of a turn-around.
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