The statements coming from a couple of ministers on the poor road conditions at a function in Dhaka last Thursday otherwise represented the feeling of millions across the country. Taking part in a seminar on road maintenance, they vented their dissatisfaction over the failure of the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) in keeping the existing roads in proper condition. One of the ministers, who is in charge of the finance ministry, even threatened to make a review of the annual allocations for the RHD. The other critic -- the state minister for power, energy and mineral resources, -- raised questions about both quality and design of RHD's road construction work.
The problems involving construction of new roads and maintenance of the existing ones are rather perennial. The relevant issues have been discussed time and again even at the donors' level, but no tangible improvement has taken place until now. All the agencies, namely, the RHD, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and the local government bodies, have almost an identical track record in the matters of construction of new roads and maintenance of the old ones.
The budgetary allocations for these agencies, particularly for the RHD, has increased manifold in recent years. But the quality of the roads, be it national highways or feeder roads, they build is hardly up-to-the mark. Since the national highways get greater attention, the situation though found to be somewhat better in some respects, the quality of their construction work is found to be well below what is stipulated in the bidding documents. This is found to be true in the case of a number of newly built four-lane highways that are requiring repair in many places within months after their construction.
Natural as well as man-made factors are generally blamed for frequent development of cracks and potholes in roads and highways. But the problem, it is widely believed, surfaces mainly due to lack of adherence to genuine road building codes. Contractors with tacit consent from the relevant officials, do very often deviate from the codes and compromise with quality for understandable reasons. Thus, causes for roads developing cracks and potholes here and there are created during their building stage.
The situation turns bad when the damaged roads are not repaired over a long time for non-availability of funds. Relevant agencies do always complain about scarcity of road maintenance funds. True, the allocations made available to a number of public agencies in the national budget for road maintenance has always been too meagre to accomplish their task.
Moreover, the RHD and other agencies are found to be more interested in building new roads, not in carrying out maintenance work on existing roads. The new road projects, it is alleged, do offer greater opportunity to a section of unscrupulous officials and contractors to embezzle a part of the project funds. In the case of maintenance work, the scope remains very limited because of small allocations.
In fact, most roads built in the country are exposed to two major deficiencies -- their quality is compromised at the time of construction work and sufficient funds are not available for their timely repair at the later stage. Under the circumstances, it would be imperative for the RHD and relevant other agencies to concentrate less on building new roads, for now, and spend more money and time on the maintenance of the existing ones. The allocation in the national budget, thus, needs to be adequate for road maintenance and repair and not unworkably meagre. The Ministry of Roads Transport and Bridges must also see to it that the allocated funds are spent well.
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