The tragedy of our country is that uncommon things are most common. As an example, let me talk about a ‘common’ construction-related case in the public sector, which actually should be an uncommon phenomenon.
Everyone knows that most construction-related contracts lead to poor quality outcomes, as if it were an inherent character of public works. According to a news report in late August, a 30-km long stretch of Kathmandu-Melamchi road is full of potholes, less than two months after it was asphalted and in some stretches, the road is actually like a muddy field being prepared for rice plantation. The contractor—Tamang Construction Company—has already received Rs 330 million and claims Rs 100 million is still outstanding. It means the total construction cost is Rs 430 million, but the quality of work is so dismal that it won’t be wrong to say that public money has been utterly wasted. In addition, the contractor also quarried stones from the jungle nearby without permission, so the village near the quarry is now susceptible to landslides.
Ideally, no construction work should be of such appalling quality. Further, those behind such shoddy jobs should be penalized stringently as a deterrent to others who are tempted to commit such transgressions again. Only if we are able to develop such a system will our infrastructure quality improve. Unfortunately, because the measures we have taken so far are not effective, such cases keep occurring.
There are two major reasons behind this state of affairs. First, a weak control mechanism that encourages the contractor and some officials to collude for making money by compromising on the quality of goods or services. Second, the offenders are often protected by those they are politically affiliated to as well as by senior government officials in such a manner that they usually cannot be punished.
To make control mechanisms effective, we mainly need three components––a comprehensive legal framework, strong institutions, as well as competent and motivated human resources. What is currently needed is to review the present situation, keeping in mind these three requirements.
Legal framework refers to the set of laws that governs a particular issue. We need laws that cover all aspects, to keep actions and behaviour of people involved within expected limits. An inadequate legal framework gives leeway to unscrupulous elements.
Public Procurement Act (PPA) and Public Procurement Regulation (PPR) enacted in 2007 are the main laws that govern the entire procurement process. These laws are tailored to our context, and are in tune with the model public procurement law prescribed by United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). Enforcement of these laws can be considered a breakthrough in public procurement reform. These laws replaced previous provisions related to procurement. While current procurement laws cover most procurement procedures, the framework to control the quality of construction work is not up to par. Provisions 117 and 125 of PPR establish that a construction contractor shall report to the employer about completion of work with details, and subsequently the employer shall certify work completion after verification of work in the field, and only then will the final payment be made to the contractor.
However, verification and certification of final work by the same entity that also supervises day-to-day work is contradictory to the principle of separation of responsibilities to maintain quality and avert chances of unscrupulous practices. If such authority rests on them, there is more chance of collusion between a contractor and a government engineer. If there is another agency to verify final work, the chances of collusion between the two will dip.
Our experiences make us cynical about adding a new agency to control malpractices because there is no guarantee it would not collude and demand a share in the spoils. In that case, it will become just another accomplice instead of a monitoring instrument.
To minimise such a possibility, the body created for verification and certification of construction work should comprise of people who are motivated by performance and results, instead of money. For instance, people who have earned fame and honor for their previous work and achievements will not be easily tempted to indulge in corruption. We can think of a body of three to five such engineers, who have worked within the country or abroad. These engineers should be recommended by a committee comprising of the chairperson of the Engineer’s Association, Nepal Engineering Council and the dean of an engineering institute from any university of Nepal.
The body should have a tenure of up to five years and also the flexibility to hire engineers to carry out field and paper work. Easy hiring and firing power provides flexibility to control quality. The Public Procurement Monitoring Office (PPMO) under the prime minister, headed by a special class officer of the civil service, has not turned out to be effective because it is manned by bureaucrats.
The new body or agency should be given a prestigious status and should be directly under the prime minister. The chairperson and members of the governing body should be appointed by the prime minister. This body should certify all projects of physical construction or maintenance above Rs 30 million and above Rs 10 million on a sampling basis. Such an arrangement will help improve quality of projects by enhancing monitoring mechanisms.
While it is true that adding just one new agency will not correct everything wrong with our infrastructure projects, it will certainly strengthen control mechanisms. For this, a change in existing laws is a must.
The author works with the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste