Bangladesh

Railway projects falling behind

Around half of the ongoing projects of Bangladesh Railway will have to be revised after the end of the current fiscal year, thanks to poor implementation.

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As a result, cost of most of the projects -- aimed at improving railways services -- is likely to escalate, prolonging people's wait for better services from the struggling railway.

Officials of the state-owned transport agency blamed it on delays in land acquisition and approval of foreign loans, lack of necessary manpower, and lately the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Experts, however, found poor planning owing to weak feasibility studies, lack of accountability and skilled manpower, and vested interests, as the reasons behind slow progress of railway projects.

After decades of neglect, the railway started getting increased allocations when the Awami League-led alliance assumed power in 2009.

In the five consecutive fiscal years, including the current one, the government allocated Tk 56,964.21 crore for various development and technical assistance projects. BR, however, spent only Tk 30,493.29 crore until October last year, according to its data.

The railways ministry has a long record of poor implementation rate of the annual development programme (ADP). In the last five fiscal years, the ministry could not achieve the average implementation rate, except in 2017-18, documents show.

PROJECTS RUNNING BEHIND SCHEDULE

Currently, BR is implementing 39 projects costing a total of Tk 1,41,883.70 crore, most of which are funded by loans from various countries including India, China, Japan, and South Korea as well as from the Asian Development Bank.

Of these projects, 20 are for construction, rehabilitation, expansion of rail lines or bridges, or installing signalling system and level crossings.

Besides, seven projects are being implemented for procuring or renovating locomotives or carriages, nine for carrying out feasibility studies for proposed projects, and three projects for technical assistance.

Deadlines of 24 of these 39 projects are set to pass in June this year, show BR documents.

Only four projects may meet their deadlines, a top BR official told The Daily Star recently.

"The rest of the projects have to go through revision and some of the revision proposals have already been sent to the Planning Commission," said the official, who requested not to be named.

Three of the four projects that may meet the deadline are for carrying out feasibility studies for construction of a circular rail around Dhaka, construction of a rail line from Bhanga to Payra Port via Barishal, and construction of the Dhaka-Chittagong high speed rail line.

The remaining project was for installation and commissioning of an optical fibre-based telecommunication system along BR's 575km-long secondary lines.

The authorities, however, cancelled another project undertaken for carrying out a feasibility study to introduce a new rail line from Gobra to Pirojpur and rail connection to Bagerhat, sources said.

PROJECT REVISIONS COMMON

Scrutinising project documents, this correspondent found nineteen of the 24 projects, including the four which may meet the June deadline, have already been revised at least once and some multiple times.

For example, construction of the 64.75km Khulna-Mongla Port rail line was supposed to be completed within three years of the government approving the Khulna-Mongla Port Rail Line Project in December 2010. This project is the first to start among the 24.

But the project's physical work began around six years after the approval. In the meantime, the cost of the project -- being implemented with India's first line of credit -- rose to Tk 3,801 crore, 120 percent higher than the original estimate.

The delays did not end here.

The project authorities recently placed a revision proposal to the BR, seeking another Tk 997.35 crore and one-year extension of the project's current deadline in June this year.

As of February this year, the project witnessed 78 percent progress.

Among the remaining 15 projects which do not have a June deadline, six have had costs and deadline already revised once.

The projects are construction of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Railway Bridge over Jamuna River, construction of a rail line from Chattogram to Cox's Bazar, construction of the 3rd and 4th lines from Dhaka and Tongi and a double line from Tongi and Joydebpur, construction of the Dhaka-Jashore rail line through Padma Bridge, rehabilitation of Kulaura-Shahbazpur section, and procurement of 70 metre gauge locomotives.

Deadlines of the nine projects which have not already been revised are between June 2022 and June 2025. However, physical works of most of these projects have not started yet although significant amounts of project implementation time have already passed, shows document.

For example, the government had approved a project to build a double rail line along the existing single track from Khulna to Darshana aimed at boosting trade activities with neighbouring countries via Mongla Port.

The project was supposed to be implemented from January 2018 to December 2022 at a cost of Tk 3,506.75 crore under Indian lines of credit.

Half the project period has elapsed, but the project authorities have not even appointed a consultant yet, let alone starting the physical work.

Asked why such a large proportion of railways projects fail to be completed within their stipulated time and deadlines have to be revised, BR's Director General Dhirendra Nath Mazumder said, "Deadlines have to be changed as works can't be completed."

"Reasons vary from one project to another."

One project might have fallen behind due to delays in land acquisition while another project might have faced delays for belated release of funds, the BR DG told The Daily Star on April 13.

"Above all, Covid-19 pandemic played a major role here," he said.

Asked whether they have any plan to expedite overall progress of the projects, Dhirendra Nath said, "What can we do now amid the Covid-19 pandemic? This a global problem."

POOR PLANNING

Prof Shamsul Hoque of Buet's civil engineering department blamed poor planning on the basis of so-called feasibility studies as the main reason for time and project costs running over.

He said a feasibility study has to be done considering all necessary elements but these have now turned out to be a "mere formality" and a "mockery".

Consultants carry out feasibility studies as per the wishes of their clients and project high ambitious aspects of the projects, he said.

"You won't find any project that consultants find non-feasible," said Prof Shamsul.

Many important aspects are ignored and unresolved in the feasibility study and when the project authorities undertake implementation, they have to change many things, resulting in time and costs escalation, said the prominent transport expert.

This type of malpractice continues as the consultants, project authorities and implementing or approving agencies are never held responsible for this poor planning, he added.

"A poor feasibility study leads to poor planning, which leads to rise in project costs and time," he told The Daily Star on March 20.

Prof Shamsul said many government agencies like BR lack the capacity to implement such mega projects due to a lack of technical manpower, he said.

Besides, all people involved with these projects benefit from delays in some way or the other and they don't have to be accountable for their actions, he added.

"One or two projects may face delays and cost escalation. But almost all projects are facing the same fate, meaning there are faults in the system that are increasing our development pain.

"These should be fixed first."

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