National Projects: Learning from our recent past

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Cost overrun seems to be the fate of all projects that are initiated in the country. This has been highlighted repeatedly in the Annual Audit Reports, with nigh any concrete remedial measure ever instituted. And therefore the insult continues to be perpetrated…

A lot of ink continues to be spilled about the hugely expensive project of the multisport complex at Cote d’Or. Besides the cost factor, other issues that have been flagged are its relatively isolated location (from residential areas) and inaccessibility by public transport – unless it is being built for a certain elite in mind? But the elite prefer the high end gyms which have come up in many places and are more easy of access, so what’s the post-games fate of the Cote d’Or complex going to be?

This brings to mind the George V Stadium in Curepipe which was renovated over a decade ago, at a time when football was practically dying in Mauritius, to be replaced by cheering English FA League matches, European football league competitions and World Cups in the privacy of individual homes, or in pubs where friends in groups gather around drinks to watch what their favourite teams or players are up to. It goes without saying that, following a well-known pattern, the initial cost of Rs 70 million — if my memory serves me right – was greatly exceeded, that is, there was a cost overrun that seems to be the fate of all projects that are initiated in the country. As has been pointed out many times before, this has been highlighted repeatedly in the Annual Audit Reports, with nigh any concrete remedial measure ever instituted. And therefore the insult continues to be perpetrated.

If one were to make a survey, it would probably be found that the quantum of overrun increases in proportion to that of the initial estimate – the higher the latter, the higher again the excess of funding required for completion of the project. A case in point is that of the Verdun-Calebasses road collapse, all of a mere 438 metres, which hopefully will be restored within the present government’s mandate without any further escalation of the cost. Since nowadays the calculations have shifted from mere millions to tens then hundreds of millions and next billions, perhaps our deciders ought to sit back and do some serious reflection about how the moneys saved in cost overruns could have been better utilised to address other issues of greater importance to the citizens.

So we come back to George V Stadium, which has stood ‘fallow’ as it were for so many years now – except for the wall facing Boulevard Victoria, which receives a coat of decorative painting of from time to time. What a colossal waste of public funds this once lively stadium represents. Even more, what a shame that for reasons best known to themselves the authorities can’t seem to have any imagination for what alternative use could be made of it, especially at a time when so many youngsters are going astray into drugs and other escapades. Surely there’s enough talent in the country to engage the youth and incentivize them to fruitfully exploit a public good that is staring at them?

The problem in our country is that we don’t trust our own people and call in foreign experts at the drop of a pin. I have no doubt that foreign technical expertise is certainly needed in specific instances, but it does not mean that they are always right, in particular when such opinion is unsolicited, as that of someone from Reunion who made dire predictions about the mortality of the AH1N1 epidemic when we were battling it, and which was way off the true figure. Or the report from Harvard about Chikungunya, whose recommendations our local Public Health specialists found not suited to the Mauritian context. For that matter, when we were interacting with the Ministry of Finance during my posting at the Ministry of Health, once I heard it being said that a foreign consultant there had quipped, ‘tell me what the Minister wants and that’s what I will put in my report’! I cannot be blamed, therefore, if I have some reservations about some of these outsider consultants, but I must also add that I have personally worked with a number of them in the health field who were eminently trustworthy.

There is also poor coordination among the various sectors of the country so that we fail to optimize the use of existing facilities. On the other hand, a positive example is that of the very effective and ably manned Health Promotion and Research Unit at the Ministry of Health which is already doing excellent work in combating the scourge of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and which to the best of my knowledge already networks with the Ministry of Youth and Sports as well as that of Education to encourage the youth in taking part in physical activities. Under its oversight have been set up several health tracks in different parts of the country. Perhaps the Municipality of Curepipe could discuss with that Unit the possibilities of giving some life to George V Stadium? Just a suggestion, but if this were done perhaps some good might come out of it. A little something would surely be better than nothing. Otherwise, George V Stadium would continue to remain as a White Elephant – a fate that might well befall the Cote d’Or Complex if there is no forward planning that accompanies its construction as to what next post the games.

Again in Curepipe we find another example that was the talk of the town, nay the country at that time: the market at Forest Side in which was sunk millions and whose metal frame started to rust soon after, posing a risk of crumbling such that it had to be brought down. The next one is still awaiting to rise and stand – for how long again one may wonder.

Commonsense would tell us that either the material used for the frame was of inferior quality or that maintenance was defective. Having worked in government hospitals, I know for a fact that one of our biggest problems is preventive maintenance of the infrastructure across the Ministry of Health, but also of medical equipment. Elsewhere in the world, there are huge bridges which are still going strong for years and years altogether. For example, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, which was opened in 1882, and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco which became operational in 1936.

There are permanent teams that ensure the maintenance of these and other bridges across the US, although I read some time back that much more needs to be done for what has been termed the US’s ‘crumbling public infrastructure’. Nevertheless, whoever has been on some of the bridges in the US cannot fail to be impressed. I remember reading an article on this subject and learnt that there was one particular bridge which was being maintained by a third generation of the same family, with a grandson shown perched high up on the bridge; he had proudly talked about his grandfather who had first undertaken this task.

And here, we could not even maintain in adequate state a simple market! If we look around there will be numerous examples of such serious lacunae in our undertakings in the public sector. For heaven’s sake, let us learn the lessons from the past, correct our mistakes, optimise the use of existing facilities and last but not least have some more trust in our local competent people who find themselves in positions of responsibility by sheer meritocracy.

* Published in print edition on 24 May 2019

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