Down the drain
Everywhere it is the same old story. Roads built get washed away after the first rains. Recently built bridges and culverts show cracks. Contractors contracted by the various divisions of the government take it for a ride with shoddy workmanship and budgets magically inflate many times over the project period. What is difficult to understand is why the government's only project monitoring body, the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) formed in 1984 for ensuring strict monitoring and evaluation of public works is wilfully ignored by the ministries.
Indeed, going by newspaper reports, we are continually confronted by projects that not only miss completion deadlines, but whose original budgets keep getting revised upwards. The IMED has been dubbed a "dead horse" as it remains both understaffed and its evaluation reports are routinely ignored by the various government bodies that commission hundreds if not thousands of projects every fiscal year. According to a report published in The Financial Express on May 8, we learn that while government development projects have increased many times over the last few decades, IMED's manpower has not, which in effect renders it ineffective as a watchdog body. The numbers actually speak for themselves. The division has 240 people working for it with a mere 92 Class I officials, and it is up to this paltry number to evaluate hundreds of development projects under the current annual development plan – which has a little over 1,200 projects with a budget of Tk 970 billion.
So if we are to go by those figures, it is estimated that every official must monitor 23.36 projects in a year. How on earth is an official to do qualitative assessment for so many projects in one year? It will take a few weeks just to prepare a report on a monitoring and evaluation of a single project. What it all boils down to of course is that the investigation needed to see whether the project has been satisfactorily completed is not done and blaming the IMED or its officials for a shoddy job is not possible, since they are simply understaffed.
Naturally, a toothless government watchdog body only goes to strengthen the hands of unscrupulous contractors. A stark example of that happening came through in a recently unearthed case of shoddy workmanship falling under the Department of Agriculture, where the contractor was saving 5 kilograms of mild steel (MS) rods in the construction of a two-storey biological research centre at Damurhuda upazila in Chuadanga. If that is the level of graft going on, we shudder to think what is happening with large infrastructure projects, like the numerous flyovers being constructed in Dhaka city.
That public funds, which are in effect tax payers' money, are being misspent and the government cannot find enough money to equip IMED with requisite staff is not unfortunate, it is ludicrous. Quality assessment is a prerequisite for any public works project because the lack of proper oversight will and does lead to graft and low build quality, especially in a country where there are contractors who have no problems stuffing bamboos in place of iron rods in construction. According to one IMED official (as per the report published in The Financial Express) "We recommend for the line ministries to conduct proper investigation into any specific corruption or misappropriation of funds, the ministries in most cases do not follow our report." And if we take that statement at face value, we must conclude the public agencies involved with project work are getting away scot free. Then what is the point of having IMED around in the first place? Why not simply disband it and save the public exchequer monies that are allocated to pay for staff salaries, benefits and keep logistics up and running.
We keep hearing about the zero-tolerance approach towards graft. Now if this is the situation with IMED and its inability to properly evaluate projects, where its recommendations in the form of reports gather dust on bookshelves, precisely how is public money being well spent? And what quality of work is the government getting for the billions of taka it is spending annually for much-needed public works. These are all valid questions which will undoubtedly go unanswered as is the custom in Bangladesh, where accountability is a word found only in the dictionary.
Given that the government is spending significant resources to upgrade the infrastructure of the country in terms of road, rail, port and other links, it only goes to its own benefit to have a well-staffed and equipped division whose primary responsibility is to be its eyes-and-ears on the ground that will look after the quality aspect of state sponsored projects and make policy recommendations on which actions will be taken by the relevant ministries. A failure to do so will manifest itself when commissioned works break down before date of expected expiry.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.