Development works are needed everywhere – be it in developed countries or developing countries. Every country needs infrastructure development or improvement. In Nepal also, development works are going on. They are a continuous process. Development works include not only new works but also maintenance works. For this, such works are often contracted out. There are many contractors working in the field of construction works in Nepal. But the performance of the majority of contractors is not satisfactory.
Delay in completing development projects has been the order of the day. The government is forced to extend the time of completion of projects not only once but several times. Still, some projects remain incomplete or are never completed. There are several implications of project delays. The people whom the benefits of development projects are targeted at are deprived of such benefits, sometimes affecting their life. Acquisition of vast swathes of land belonging to the people for hydropower projects is a case in point. In some cases, such victims get neither their land nor compensation for their land. In other words, they are bogged down in the quagmire of anger and frustration.
Construction works are ready to start after a proper contract between a contractor and the government is inked. For this, the contractor gets a certain amount of money. Some contractors tend to misuse such an amount, called mobilisation money, without initiating the work as per the contracts awarded to them. The contractors are often in cahoots with political parties or leaders. Their hobnobbing with such political parties or figures provides them with a kind of cushion. In fact, they are emboldened to do whatever they like instead of the following the contract provisions. Not only contractors but also businessmen have a close nexus with the political parties or leaders. The contractors and businessmen get political protection for financing the political parties or leaders during elections and at other times.
Worse, when the contractors become lawmakers, they may misuse their influence or powers to bend the relevant laws and policies in their favour. In the elections to the Federal Parliament and Provincial Assemblies held on November 20, 2022, several contractors were elected to the Federal Parliament and Provincial Assemblies. Some of them were Bikram Pandey (owner of Kalika Construction Private Limited), Mohan Acharya (owner of Rasuwa Construction), Purna Bahadur Tamang (owner of Kanchharam Construction Company Ltd.), Krishna Kumar Shrestha, Dhan Bahadur Budha Magar, Bahadur Singh Lama (owner of Himdung and Thokar Pvt. Ltd.) and Indra Bahadur Baniya (owner of Baniya Nirman Sewa).
It would be germane to mention that in 2018, the CIAA filed a corruption case against Bikram Pandey and 20 government officials and consultants on the charge of carrying out substandard works in the construction of the much-touted Sikta Irrigation Project. But all the accused were released by the Special Court. There is a trend among the contractors and businessmen of contesting elections. And some of them win the elections on the grounds of popularity or influence. After becoming members of parliament or even ministers, they can ensure better protection for themselves. Government officials cannot dare to take action against such contractors and others having political connections even if they do not complete the projects awarded to them. Rather, the government has to think twice before taking action against them!
Moreover, the lawmakers who are contractors can influence state decisions. In 2016, a bill on the Banks and Financial Institutions (BFIs) Act regulations were presented to the House of Representatives. The bill sought to bar those occupying constitutional posts from becoming the members of the BODs of BFIs. But a group of lawmakers from the business sector registered an amendment proposal, demanding that only chiefs and members of constitutional bodies be barred from joining the BODs of the BFIs. In the same year, some lawmakers owning private schools foiled the government’s plan to convert all private schools into trusts through an amendment to the Education Act.
In a similar vein, in 2018, a number of contractors were nominated to the Development and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives. Fearing that they would influence the policy-level decisions in their favour, many other lawmakers openly protested. What is more, the contractors may influence amendment to public procurement regulations. There have been such instances for the past few years. When the contractors influence the acts, regulations and policies relating to contract works, what the quality of works will be or whether the projects will be completed in time is anybody’s guess.
It is not possible to prevent the contractors from hobnobbing with the political parties or leaders, neither is it possible to bar them from contesting the elections. Both the contractors and political parties or leaders benefit from each other. But it is the general people who have to bear the brunt. Delaying projects not only troubles the people but also deprives them of the benefits the projects are supposed to provide them with. On the other hand, the political parties or leaders get financial benefits from the contractors, who are protected from any action the government may take against them for failing to abide by the provisions as encapsulated in the contracts.
The contractors, whether lawmakers or having political connections, should execute the contracts awarded to them. They should put the interest of the state above theirs. They should realise that they are part and parcel of development. They can play a pivotal role in accelerating development. They should make serious efforts to execute the tasks entrusted to them. They should not unnecessarily delay the projects on one pretext or the other for greed of increasing costs. They should encourage, not hinder, development works. They should be partners in development.
There are many irons in the fire when it comes to infrastructure development. First, the contractors should be honest. If they fail to fulfil their obligations under the contracts, the government should penalise them. Just revoking the contracts does not seem to be enough. Such erring contractors should be made to pay hefty fines as compensation. Also, their licences should be cancelled. The government should come down heavily on the erring contractors if it wants to see development projects completed in time. And the state of impunity the erring contractors have been enjoying for years under the aegis of political connections will definitely grind to a halt if the government takes harsh measures.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)