Reforming how we approach public projects is vital
Amid concerns about a debt distress precipitated by ongoing strains on Bangladesh's foreign exchange regime, there seems to have been a realisation in the policy circles about the importance of tightening our purse strings through austerity measures. We've already seen several policy directives to that effect, such as cancelling foreign trips of public officials and postponing less important projects that require imports. While this drive may not be born out of a genuine desire to cut all unnecessary expenses of the government, one would hope that it will extend to how the government implements its projects where time and cost overruns are quite common, for which it is the people who have to pay.
The proposed revision of the Dhaka-Ashulia Elevated Expressway project, which is yet to formally take off even though its deadline expires in just over a month, provides a good case study of these interlinked crises, and how we approach it will determine the viability of the present drive. According to a report by this daily, officials are now seeking four more years and an additional Tk 651.72 crore. If approved, it will take the total cost to Tk 17,553.04 crore. The project—with a significant portion of its budget coming from a Chinese loan of USD 1.1 billion—is one of the 27 for which Chinese financing was assured in 2016. How soon or efficiently can Bangladesh implement these and other such projects? Can it repay its foreign debts on time? Will RMG exports and remittances—our prime sources of foreign currency—be enough to offset a possible debt distress?
One less-recognised concern is how poor implementation of public projects has been hurting our economy. This is a hole not of foreign making, and any austerity measure without plugging this hole risks being rendered ineffective in the long run. Unfortunately, when it comes to implementation, there seems to be no shortage of reasons for public projects to drag on year after year. In the case of Dhaka-Ashulia Elevated Expressway, it is delayed activation of the Chinese loan. Unless the authorities are careful, soon it may suffer from the same problems that routinely dog almost all other projects: lack of coordination, inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption. The huge amount of money thus wasted is a sad commentary on how our approach to economic problems has been basically a case of one step forward and two steps back.
This is why we need reforms that are inclusive and reflective of the wider issues involved. While the government goes about enforcing austerity measures to stop wastage of foreign currency, it must fix internal, systemic challenges long draining our coffers. Public projects are a good starting point.