No publicly funded infrastructure project, having public debt components beyond the mandate of a single government’s lifespan, can go ahead without public disclosure of essentials
Parliament resumed last week with its expected tensions and the exclusion of the Leader of the Opposition for two sittings, a rather exceptional measure for manifested disrespect for the Speaker. Nevertheless, Mr Xavier Duval’s PNQ on the Metro Express brought the topic back on the table.
A number of things may have become clearer to MPs with the tabling of some Metro Express financial forecasting reports by the Minister of Public Utilities. The tabling comes several months after the signature of the Design and Build contract awarded to Larsen & Toubro. The contract itself is still held incommunicado, somewhat unaccountably, since it is about massive public fund use and we doubt if other tram-building competitors might use the contractual information locally for unfair advantage. We might recall here that the roof did not fall on our heads when one government released and made public the famous IPP contracts that its predecessor had similarly held as incommunicado, even though the commercial and competitive sensitivity factors were far higher in that particular case.
If there are worthwhile constitutional amendments in the pipeline, we should seriously consider making sure that no major publicly funded infrastructure project, sometimes having social, environmental, financial, foreign exchange and public debt components far beyond the purview and mandate of a single government’s lifespan, can go ahead without a proper transparent approval procedure with public disclosure of essentials.
One may consider that, barring some projects having national security implications, transparency and public disclosure should be a pre-requisite for accountability and a functional democracy in today’s world of expectations. It does not call for re-inventing the wheel since such a public hearing procedure is operative in France and has been successfully applied in Reunion Island with particular regard to its own version of the great tramway project that was ultimately discarded, despite a signed contract, as the massive public financing and subsidy levels were judged to be unbearable.
We recall that the 29km Reunionese tramway project was estimated to cost some Rs 60 billion. If our government is indeed affirming that it is commissioning a 23km similar tramway for a desultorily low Rs 19 billion, out of which nearly half is being provided as a grant by India against the curtailment of the DTAA treaty, then we should be whooping with joy and government should have no compunction about making such an advantageous contractual agreement public. Why would Larsen & Toubro, the selected bidder, now that the contract has been signed, resist making its contractual obligations public?
We cannot comment on the contents of the released documents which many in the know of the financials and technicalities since 2013 will be better placed to gauge. But while we are on the topic, one cannot fail to stumble on some still unanswered simpler questions.
Urgent bull-dozing of homes in La Butte and Barkly were justified by Government spokespersons and its blogosphere on grounds of alluded heavy penalties were the sites not delivered to Larsen & Toubro by end-August. The reasons for such haste and peremptory demolitions remain a mystery as it now transpires that actual works on these sites will not start until the contractor actually completes all its preliminary tests and finalises its proposed detailed design by early next year. There are no satisfactory explanations for the public shocks of Black Friday.
As for Quatre-Bornes, rammed rather recklessly into the December by-election, traffic situation with the advent of the surface-tracked tramway along St Jean main road looks set to create exceptional difficulties for the Minister’s technical teams and the inhabitants of the poor Cité des Fleurs. Even the latest musings about making St Jean road traffic one-way and outgoing only, while incoming traffic will percolate into the town using a new graded round-about on the M1 motorway and most of the Sodnac avenues, raise more questions than they adequately answer. Besides, inhabitants still wonder whether there will be any zebra-crossing or traffic lights for pedestrians across St Jean avenue while many small business and shops wonder where main road car parkings will be available for their patrons.
The Minister has repeatedly stated in Parliament that tramway fares would reflect current bus fares and operations, in other words, weekly, monthly or other season tickets with some consequential discounts, an essential feature of any Metro or Tramway system elsewhere, are not being envisaged in the updated financial forecasts presented. We have to assume that the updated commuter figures of some 54,000 full fee-paying travellers have excluded the students and Old Age Pensioners who are entitled to free ridership presently in public transport. We have also to reckon that at some ten trains per hour, each fully packed with a maximum of 300 passengers, the peak-hour traffic from say 6 am to 8.30 am cannot exceed 8000 commuters at most from Curepipe to Port-Louis and the same numbers back home in the afternoon.
The Minister went further to state that the commuting traffic proposal is meant and designed for home-to-office, which inevitably means that feeder bus rates, estimated at about Rs 60 per day, will add their weight to the commuter’s decision-making on whether the relatively costly crammed tram & its feeder buses, is far preferable to their private car or an air-conditioned coach ride into the capital. As of today, the Singapore Corporation financial revenue forecasts look somewhat rosy if not a leap of faith. As for a major infrastrucuture project making sizeable operational profits as from its first year of operation, that’s probably unheard of elsewhere in the world, but we have to believe…
* Published in print edition on 1 November 2017