‘Heritage City saga will hopefully lead govt to focus on the programme it was elected’

Interview: Akash Gura Goredo, Contracts Engineer : 

* ‘Why rekindle the Metro which aims at reducing congestion and at the same time reduce levies to make car purchase more affordable?’

* Bagatelle Dam: ‘The concept of “sans l’ombre d’un doute” is rarely achievable in engineering’

Our guest this week, Akash Gura Goredo, is a Contracts Engineer since 2003,with experience in all contractual matters such as Delay Analysis, Claims, Dispute, Arbitration; Start-up and Close-out Tenders: Technical bid preparation, Method Statement, Environmental Planning & Monitoring, Planning. Starting off from the abandonment of the Heritage City project, he goes on to dissect several aspects of the dysfunctions that plague decision making and the procurement processes, especially unwarranted interferences from other ministers who do not possess the competence to do so. His analysis and the queries he raises are an eye-opener that will be of great interest to all citizens who care for true good governance and the fate of future generations of Mauritians.

* A number of objections would have been raised at Cabinet level, supported by the inputs from advisers and other officials, to justify the shelving away of the Heritage City project: “trop cher et trop hasardeux”, we are told, insofar as the capital outlay for and environmental risks of Heritage City are concerned, as well as uncertain credentials of the Dubai-based Stree Consulting firm which was responsible for drawing up the City’s master plan. What do the Heritage saga and its abandonment inform us about the manner in which our respective governments go about dealing with such huge – and sometimes grandiose – public sector projects?

As you know, when the Highlands City Project was launched by a previous government, invitation for expression of interest had first been launched. In the case of the Heritage City project, it looks as if even Cabinet members were not fully in the picture. The absence of a proper exercise inviting expressions of interest this time can be used to illustrate a growing concern about public procurement processes, especially for large-scale projects. The amount of time and resources spent by local and international companies responding to a proper bidding process is normally absorbed when the projects actually materialise – contractors are paid for work, their suppliers and sub-contractors are also paid, causing a positive multiplier effect in the sector and, by ricochet, onto the economy. But if the expressions of interest are not followed up with execution of the projects, everyone in this supply chain accumulates losses in the form of sterile studies, which ultimately is to the detriment of the economy itself.

It is up to the government to seek the most technically viable and financially responsible alternatives available for projects it undertakes, and not to distort their intent. There is no such thing as a free meal, but we must start somewhere. Perhaps the case of Heritage City shows that coordination at the level of ministers themselves is an essential precondition when embarking on important projects, and it reflects poorly when these uncoordinated decisions cascade down to halt everything when it comes to the execution level.

Hopefully, this present outcome for Heritage City saga will hopefully lead the Cabinet to focus on the programme it was elected and get things done (and making sure that they are geared towards implementing the Vision 2030 programme) within the remaining three-fifths of this government’s term.

* In his reply to the PNQ of the Leader of the Opposition on 19 April 2016, Hon Bhadain stated that Mr Saeed Ahmed Saeed, the “representative” of Dubai-based Stree Consulting, would create “something fabulous for Mauritius”. “He got a wealth of expertise in this field,” he said, for having worked on the Palm Island Development in Dubai, the Jumeirah Islands, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the New World Trading Centre in US. Impressive CV, which finds no mention at all on the internet. Rather intriguing, isn’t it?

The question is: how did Stree Consulting come into the picture? Normally, and as the name suggests, it is up to the State Land Development Co. Ltd to develop state lands, and up to the State Property Development Company to implement these infrastructure projects – by various ways and means, including devolving specialised works to parastatal bodies for follow-up at execution level.

In the case of Stree Consulting, we are back to the era of ‘unsolicited bids’ which blighted procurement processes with unneeded, unplanned projects that would not fit into the overall planned development strategy of Mauritius. Also, the apparent lack of involvement of local competencies, nor any consultations with local stakeholders hint towards a unilateral approach aimed at copying from abroad and imposing solutions that may have worked elsewhere but could be totally irrelevant in the local context. Look at Ebene for instance: a concrete jungle with minimal footpaths, non-existent parking space and a labyrinth instead of a road network, compounded with an absence of planning for decent access of buses into it.

As for the Minister’s statement in Parliament, it speaks loads about how the procurement process has been distorted: when tenders are analysed – whether for consultancy or direct execution of procurement contracts – it is up to experienced technicians delegated by the Central Procurement Board (CPB) to examine the credentials of bidders against pre-set criteria. This form of scrutiny, though lengthy, has the benefit of being transparent and fair towards all bidders. Besides, it enables unselected bidders to gear up for the next opportunities – there are numerous examples of small entrepreneurs who have built impressive corporations by starting small and investing in acquiring experience and knowledge over a period of time. Any company can eventually build an impressive background but only with time and documented evidence.

Other than this comes the question of payment for the services of the consultant, in our case Stree Consulting. As a foreign company it will surely be invoicing in foreign currency. Again many questions arise: Was this expenditure budgeted for? How to issue payment to this entity? On which grounds: how to quantify the work, against which specifications, by whom? This on-going chain of questions rippling through all spheres is an indication of the negative impacts of averting the tried-and-trusted public procurement process that guaranteed transparency and fairness – in short, good governance, as a matter of fact…

* The security risks apparently posed by the Bagatelle Dam to the Heritage City project, even if the latter has now been shelved, would still be present for Ebene City and the surrounding areas as well as for the ENL Smart City and Highlands Smart City. One would like to believe that appropriate geotechnical tests would have been carried out to ensure that the Bagatelle Dam is “sûr et fiable sans l’ombre d’un doute”, as a spokesperson of ENL put it this week. Right?

The concept of “sans l’ombre d’un doute” is rarely achievable in engineering — engineers perform designs by in-building factors of safety. The higher the factor of safety, the higher the standards of manufacture/ building, and therefore, as you may guess, the costlier. But there are reasonable compromises that can be made, and which ensure that safety is guaranteed up to certain extreme conditions – the case of the floods of 2013 show that however sophisticated the tools for design, minimising or neglecting potential extremes can mean that the constructed works will fail when these extremes do happen.

In the case of the Bagatelle Dam, it is public knowledge that it is probably due to deficiencies in geotechnical studies before construction that it has been delayed after problems have been discovered during the execution stage. And it is commendable that instead of abandoning the project as a sunk cost, the State has boldly continued and, despite the huge cost overruns, will be reaping the fruits of the hardships when it will avail itself of the additional millions of cubic metres of fresh water for furthering any development needs of our country in the medium to long term.

A fresh geotechnical study would at best confirm whatever data has already been used to re-design the foundations of the Bagatelle Dam. What about the design report that the client of the Bagatelle Dam requests from his consultant prior to the design? And what about asking for an as-built survey that all contractors are required to submit before the consultant can approve the release of their taking-over certificate? All of these are essential documentations that are already in-built as specified requirements in construction contracts – anything else may be a duplication of work already done. And our country is in dire need of technical resources elsewhere.

* A number of countries have relocated their capital cities to other places. Were there good reasons to relocate the Capital city of Mauritius with its Parliament and a good number of ministries to Highlands?

Among the countries which have ventured into relocating their capital cities, how many have actually made it into a living and liveable system? At one extreme, there are probably Burma and Cote d’Ivoire which switched capitals for reasons known to their leaders only. At the other end, there are somewhat successful stories – Brazil took some years to relocate the whole of its administration from Rio de Janeiro — which were forced due to natural hazard risks posed by their location, or others fearing invasion by the sea. Are we making an informed, reasoned move like the latter, or is it a mere whim of decision-makers?

Yes, Port Louis is cramped, smothered in dust and smoke, and despite all this, it is a thriving city. It is full of life and enshrines our common legacy of ‘vivre ensemble’. It may be tough on the senses, especially at the peak of summer, but after a day of business in Port Louis, it is not as a mercantile, consumerist way as in the numerous shopping malls. The question is: how do you transplant the whole cultural legacy, which gives a capital its soul, to a new location? Why not take some time to listen to the people and plan to correct defects that have crept in over time? Or is it merely following a trend of copy-pasting from abroad without any consideration for local specificities? Highlands is, as far as we know, highly arable land.

* If the need to decongestion our cities and towns is indeed necessary, and Heritage City would have facilitated this process, we would expect this to be carried out according to planning directions as set out in a Concept Plan and a Master Plan. Do we have any of these plans? If so, where was the need for the Verdun-Terre Rouge Link Road plus the Port Louis Circular Road as well as the relocation of Port Louis to Highlands?

The answer is in the question, actually. And unfortunately the people who are to use this intended new infrastructure have never been consulted. Also, if there was a need for a new capital city, what study was conducted to assess the problems of Port Louis?

There is a host of questions that remain to be answered: was this relocation – with the rationale behind it, if any — mentioned in the last Vision 2020 of the now-defunct Ministry of Planning? Why was this relocation still not mentioned in the latest Vision 2030?

As for the road decongestion programme which you mention, it is worth noting that the intent is to allow traffic to reach and permeate through Port Louis with greater ease – but then, this is for the whole of Mauritius to access Port Louis. Has a traffic survey been carried out to feed into simulations for traffic being re-routed from Port Louis to the centre, with impacts on adjoining urban regions?

After taking stock of all of these impacts, one would realise that the Heritage City concept was far from being a properly planned and fully thought-out venture. And this reflects badly on us internationally.

* It has been argued that the future development of Mauritius will depend in large measure on how optimally our limited land resources are allocated to alternative sustainable uses. We do not seem to have grasped to this day the importance of a ‘plan d’urbanisme’ for the whole of Mauritius. If we did and had worked out such a plan, how would the Smart Cities and the Metro Express fit in, according to you?

Strangely enough, the light rail transit system surfaces back to relevance in this present budget, after having been heavily criticised recently by the same persons. The light rail could make sense for moving large quantities the most fluidly possible while forming part of a general urbanisation plan and also the general way of life of Mauritians.

Just imagine what has been hammered into our heads since ages: Mauritius is limited due to its limited land resources. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy and let us dispel this – for our 1.2 million inhabitants, it seems cramped, but we are endowed with about 1.5 sq.km per head of land, which is ten times more than small countries like Hong Kong or Singapore. Is it not high time to start with a land bank for managing what is left of state lands?

Other than this, what is the status of the Land Administration, Valuation and Information Management System (LAVIMS) project – is the State deriving full use of this Rs 1.2 billion rupee project? By properly assessing the exact delimitations of lands, the Ministry of Housing and Lands possesses a strategic tool for planning the set-up of Mauritius – the optimal positioning of economic activities in relation to inputs. Stakeholders should normally have put this Ministry together with those of Economic Planning and Industry into the driving seat of Vision 2030. But then, when a comparison is made between the current itinerary of the M3 Terre-Rouge-Verdun and the initial one going along a shorter route through Malenga, one can only wonder about the rationale behind the magnitude of the butchery made of the verdant hills of Ripailles…

Furthermore, even if the Ministry of Public Infrastructure’s architects have duly published a full-fledged guideline on the design of landscaping arrangements around major infrastructure (clearances between highways and nearest trees, buffers between roads, etc), there exists a gap between this and what is actually practised. Worse, the enforcement of existing laws by authorities (Municipal and District Councils, RDA) on the frontages, reserves and basic road infrastructure and their usage is another proof of the lack of focus on what the country needs and wants. Why allow a residential area to be built near a heavy industrial zone (Valentina, Phoenix)? Why allow industrial zone to be built with internal access roads so narrow that they do not allow trailers with 40ft containers from swerving (Riche Terre)? How to justify allowing squatters to build along a future provision for a highway (Le Pouce tunnel), or along the spillway of a reservoir (La Ferme)? Linked to this, how to justify that new buses have to encroach on their right lane for turning at right angles – who deemed them to be fit for the road? So many questions that show a real disconnect between the various pieces of our system.

* Most of the issues which have apparently been raised by Mr Gerard Sanspeur, Senior Adviser of the Minister of Finance at last week’s board meeting of Heritage City Co Ltd pertaining to the credentials of Stree Consulting and the “security problems with the Bagatelle Dam not far away”, etc., had been raised by Hon. Berenger already in April 2016. But it’s now, four months later, that Heritage City – and Hon Bhadain — is being shot down for the stated risks from Bagatelle Dam. What does this suggest?

The numerous developments between now and April 2016 can explain the apparent ‘volte-face’ on this matter. Among them probably the fact that before the present budget, the perception was that things would die out at the concept stage itself, and that the Ministry of Good Governance would have backed down naturally in the face of the cost implications. But the insistence of a ministry so unrelated to development projects was a dissonant factor that brought renewed attention to the now-habitual criticisms of the Opposition Leader. Unlike the Bagatelle Dam and the Riviere des Anguilles Dam where the State would use long-term benefits as justification for forging ahead and accept the unforeseen cost overruns, the whole set-up for Heritage City would have crumbled under its own weight, unfortunately with ever-increasing costs in its trail. Of course, some may impute motives and link the Opposition Leader’s timid criticism of the Budget to a move in favour of the Finance Ministry – I would prefer leaving the analysis of these hypotheses in the able hands of experts in body language or non-verbal cues.

* In the meantime, the Metro project which was shelved away is being resuscitated. Do you think this is so simply because the government is coming to the realisation that increasing the automobile park, as it has been happening, will only add to the traffic congestion problem? Or, does this also bear in mind that India has to participate in the country’s infrastructure development project? Or, is it achieving both objectives at one shot?

Again another contradiction between actions and intentions – why rekindle the Metro which aims at reducing congestion and at the same time reduce levies to make car purchase more affordable? Apart from geopolitics, if there was real concern for reducing the number of car trips, there should have been a study to precisely identify what are the factors that deter people from taking mass transport systems, and then attack these problems at the root – not the cosmetic ones like the few low-floor buses or wi-fi enabled ones.

First, are these buses compliant with safety regulations – a reminder is the flattened out carcass of the Soreze bus rotting at the Bulk Sugar Terminal? Why are traffic inspectors so lax with established bus schedules, why are these schedules available only at the bus terminals, and not displayed publicly? Why are the buses so dirty? Why do some compete at slowness, others at belching out acrid smoke? The list could go on.

As a starting point in resolving this long overdue problem, one could probably meditate on this anecdote of a visitor to Singapore: on board of the MRT, he saw a whole family boarding, including a woman in full bride attire, on their way to marriage ceremony. This incident speaks loads about the level of confidence that the public has in its mass transit system: safe enough for his family, clean enough for his once-in-a lifetime event, reliable enough for not missing it. And, above all, cheap enough to be affordable to all.

* Are you getting the feeling that the country has politicians and decision-makers of the calibre it requires in the present very challenging local and international circumstances?

For assessing this, we should measure the effectiveness of their actions on the main drivers of the country. As a starting point is Sanjay Jagatsingh’s analysis pinpointing the failure to address comprehensively the GDP gap (almost a trillion rupees for the past 10 years), hurting competitiveness by maintaining above-normal prices of utilities, and a stagnation in real disposable income of the poor being traced back to the reluctance to phase out the flat tax. It is difficult to understand such a resistance to progressive taxation which, as highlighted by Sudhamo Lal recently, would be most beneficial to State finances.

One wonders how many real entrepreneurs refrained from putting their ideas into action. It boils down to how bold these elected people are in taking the hardest decisions in the interest of the majority of electors, not of a select few who live off protected markets, privileged rents and business-as-usual, but who may have massively financed the election campaign… The question is to see how bold these politicians and policy-makers can be when implementing laws that effectively deepen democracy such as: allowing class action lawsuits, transparency of political funding. Other laws may be aimed at better managing the country against the influence of special-interest groups, such as capping the gap between savings rates and lending rates. Or enhancing the lives of people by implementing policy decisions such as minimum hourly wage, ensuring equal pay across genders, guaranteeing a parenthood leave long enough to provide new-borns the best possible start in life, implementing a compulsory civic service (as opposed to military service)…

Or even basic enforcement of existing laws on say, traffic offences (speed cameras were reviled, defaced, attacked with metal grinders and even bullets, but eventually, they did curb fatalities; lane and traffic sign discipline), testing of imported goods, banning sub-standard imports. So many of these ideas are the fruit of speaking to the common people, but vested interests are rife in a closed system fuelled by politicians’ opportunism and short-termism of gains.

* Hon Bhadain appears to have met his Waterloo. Who’s next, as well as you can see?

The Prime Minister is himself wading in troubled waters these days – he is the Home Affairs minister for law and order which is still a sore point. While managing the two party leaders constituting his Lepep alliance, he has to maintain the unwritten ‘balance’ regarding the composition of his Cabinet for fear of causing an unnecessary unrest at this moment in his tenure.

The Minister of Agro-Industry will be gauged on how he deals with the impending catastrophe on Rodrigues’ cattle rearing ecosystem. The Minister of Fisheries has already shown his colours during the Benita emergency. The Minister of Health is showing a callous lack of empathy for synthetic drug victims and trade unions alike that is light-years from his days of lampooning the ‘plaisir’ motto.

The Minister of Housing and Lands is probably the last one to take such luxurious ego-boosting joyrides. The Minister of Energy and Public Utilities would be well advised to research about the nightmares that privatisation efforts of public utilities have caused in other countries. The Minister of Education would need to be more transparent about the anxiety-inducing implementation of the 9-year schooling, and start looking at Cambridge alternatives already.

The others that I forget to mention must be busy doing something, and can only hope that they have something to show as performance at the term of their tenure in 3 years’ time. There are so many small events that can trigger unwanted effects of an unforeseen scale… Just like a small lapse in surveillance is now decimating the whole of Rodrigues’ farming industry.

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