Dhaka-Sylhet-Tamabil Highway: Tangles at root of the mess
A project to acquire land and relocate utility service lines for expanding the Dhaka-Sylhet-Tamabil highway is likely to be delayed by two and a half years and cost double, according to the latest revision proposal of the project.
The long delay has also put two major highway expansion projects in jeopardy as officials fear they would not be able to start the physical work by June next year as planned earlier.
The government had taken the Tk 3,586.04 crore project in 2018 for acquiring land and to move the utility service cables and pipes by December last year as preparatory work for expansion of the highway.
The aim of the project was to complete the legwork in advance as these issues often cause delays and so that the expansion work of the road, which connects with India, can start as soon as separate projects are approved.
Two separate projects have already been taken up by the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) to turn Dhaka-Sylhet and Sylhet-Tamabil highways into dual carriageways with separate lanes for slow-moving vehicles over the last one year.
These two projects are likely to face trouble and delays as the revised project for clearing the land will end in June 2023 costing 105 percent more money.
This has worried the authorities of the two highway expansion projects, involving Tk 20,500 crore, over being able to start the physical work as scheduled.
They have another thing to worry about.
The financier of Sylhet-Tamabil highway expansion project gave a condition that the work on the ground cannot start until the land clearing was done.
If the financier sticks to its condition, then the project may face huge delay, officials said.
Land acquisition and moving utility services lines and pipes for any major project are a complex task. These involve many agencies and individuals and often cause delay to project implementation.
Expansion of Dhaka-Sylhet highway has long been in discussion but complexities over funding halted the plan, RHD officials said.
With this in mind, the RHD took up the separate land clearing project along the Dhaka-Sylhet-Tamabil highway.
Usually, land acquisition and moving of utility lines and pipes are done along with the infrastructure protect.
In October 2018, Ecnec approved the Tk 3,885 crore project to acquire 986.47 acres' and moving the utility service lines.
In another development, Ecnec in September 2020 approved Tk 3,586.04 crore for expanding 56.16km of Sylhet-Tamabil highway.
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will provide Tk 2,970.56 crore as soft loan and project's deadline is June 2025.
This is the first project in Bangladesh's transport sector which is being funded by the AIIB and it gave the condition that the land must be cleared first.
The impasse over the financing of the widening of 210km of Dhaka-Sylhet highway ended in 2019 after the Asian Development Bank (ADB) agreed to fund it.
In February this year, Ecnec approved the Tk 16,918.59 crore project with a December 2026 deadline.
LAND CLEARING PROJECT
As of this June, the project was able to make only 25 percent progress, forcing the government to extend the deadline to December.
In the meantime, the authorities submitted a revision proposal adding the need to acquire 395 acres more.
If the revised proposal, which is now pending with the Planning Commission, is approved, the project cost would be Tk 7,982 crore (105 percent more) and deadline would be June 2023.
RHD sources said Development Project Proposal (DPP) of the land clearing project was prepared based on a feasibility study and detailed design in 2015.
As per the design, the width of the road designated for slow vehicles was 3.6 metres. But after review of the design, ADB agreed to make it 4.2 metres. However, the prime minister later directed to make width 5.5 metres.
Moreover, around 22km of the road alignment was changed and 37 more U-turns were prescribed to ensure better road safety. Two rest areas for drivers and an weighbridge centre were added.
"Cost of the land project mainly rose due to all these factors," a RHD official, who is aware about project, told The Daily Star seeking anonymity.
Project Director Tushar Kanti Shaha could not be reached for comments.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE DELAY
The authorities of Sylhet-Tamabil highway expansion project have already started the process for floating tenders to hire contractors and hope to complete this process in next two to three months.
"After completing all the process, we hoped to start the work on the ground within the next eight to 10 months," Project Director Abu Sayeed Md Nazmul Huda told The Daily Star on September 18.
But, he said, as per the condition of the financier, they would not be able to start the work until the land clearing project is done.
"We don't agree with the financier's condition and are continuing our negotiation," he said, adding, "But, if it [financier] sticks to the condition, it would push us into a long delay."
"We have no problem except the land," he added.
AK Mohammad Fazlul Karim, project director of Dhaka-Sylhet highway, formally known as SASEC Dhaka-Sylhet Corridor Road Development Project, said the land was supposed to be readied before starting of infrastructure project.
"But, that does not happen in reality," he told this reporter on September 18.
They have already floated tender for two of the six packages and they are expecting to give work order for the first package -- from Kanchpur to Narsingdi -- to a contractor by May next year, Fazlul said.
He said they have to hand over all the land within nine months of awarding the contract. "So, getting land on time is a major challenge now."
Another official of the project said they were working with the land clearing project officials since without the land they would not be able to start physical work.
"We are preparing all necessary documents beforehand so that we can handover those to the deputy commissioners' office for quick start of land acquisition once the revision proposal [of the land clearing project] is approved," he said, wishing not to be named.
"Cooperation and prompt actions from the DCs' offices can help quick acquisition and help us to start physical work fast," he added.