On the eve of the anniversary of the Oct 8 earthquake, many questions surround the reconstruction process that the government had launched with big fanfare following credit, grant and aid commitments worth over $6 billion by donors at the Nov 19 conference in Islamabad.
Officials of the Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority (ERRA) are gearing up to convince Pakistanis and foreign friends of their hard work in the quake-affected areas. But, regardless of their claims to fame, some bitter facts merit mention to give readers the other view; all the 170 buildings that were declared as dangerous in Baagh town for instance, are today being used by officials and residents. Hundreds of families there are still living in tents because SERRA has yet to finalise plans for quake-proof home designs. ERRA officials claim around 6,600 people live in tents, compared with 300,000 immediately after the disaster. Almost a third of the homes destroyed have been rebuilt and “most of the rest were in advanced stages of completion”.
In far-flung areas like the Neelum Valley, majority of people constructed their homes, say locals, just because a) the quake proof designs for permanent structures were missing and b) the cost for the ERRA-SERRA and PERRA approved permanent structures simply outweighed the capacity of most of the affectees.
In Balakot, for example, the slow-pace reconstruction has resulted in almost resurrection of the city – which lies on the fault-lines and the strong tremors had razed it to ground, killing more than 35,000 people.
The City of Hope at Bakrial – also called New Balakot – also remains mired in controversies over land-pricing and acquisition in the face of resistance by about 600 families living in the area. Locals allege that authorities are forcing them out of their home towns and offering much below the market-price compensation.
As for schools work has been far slower with less than 100 schools out of about 6,000 completed and 300 being built, although two universities have risen from the rubble.
Allegations of corruption also accompany the entire process, with high-profile “philanthropists” – i.e. well-connected, highly placed wives, nephews, nieces and relatives of the authorities – grabbing big contracts from Neelum Valley to Chakothi to Balakot and Batagram and Alai in the Frontier Province.
One of the controversial awards of most of the road construction work revolves around the Engineering Consultants International (Pvt) Ltd ( ECIL), the company that constructed the meanwhile demised bypass flyover in Karachi. The total length of the project was 62.15 km including two flyovers at Gulbai and Pirracha chowk whereas two interchanges had been provided at RCD Highway and the Super Highway.
The fundamental fault in design was, non-consideration of “horizontal forces” (an integral parameter for designing any complex nature flyover/bridge) for design calculations design.
What will happen to the company for this colossal engineering failure on September 1 remains to be seen. But what is quite visible is that the same company designed and supervised construction of Rs700 million 68km Nowshera-Pabbi section , that appears to be an eternal construction site; commuters know that parts of this particular section even today remain under repair.
The company under discussion got all the road construction work in Kashmir, insiders say, without any competitive bidding. The powerful DG ERRA, they say, even disregarded an instruction by President Musharraf to the NHA that the firm be blacklisted for faulty designs and poor quality work.
But the authority of the DG, the manipulative skills of the ECIL, the connivance of the bureaucracy and the prospects of collective benefits have all combined to land ECIL the road construction project. The entire ERRA bureaucracy, claim ERRA insiders, have thrown their weight behind the company, facilitating all its moves with the borrowed money from ADB, World Bank and UNDP, and which the current and future Pakistani generations will have to pay through their nose.
Reportedly, ERRA officials, ignored first bidder in the technical evaluations and then curtailed the scope of work in favor of ECIL, seriously violating existing standard national and international contractual regulations.
Interestingly, the reduction in scope of work did not result in the projected cost of the project, this in the name of ensuring quality. One wonders as to whether the authorities will ever take stock of the wrong-doings of ECIL, which has been thriving despite faulty designs and poor quality work.
People privy to matters at the National Highway Authority , for example, know that road construction indeed stands out as a very lucrative business, and believe that high-ration kickback are usually inherent in the contracts awarded to construction companies.
Officials at NHA point out that the authority plans over Rs520 billion worth of new roads until 2014 in the length and breadth of the country, including the expansion and improvement of the 800-km long Karakurum Highway, Lowari tunnel and the Gilgit-Chitral road.
All these projects – on the face of it – augur well for the road network but frequent travelers can tell you the dire straights of crucial roads. Cratered and broken, many important arteries are telling comments on the “quality” that ERRA and NHA officials, for example, often brag about. Whether the KKH, or the G.T.Road, or the Coastal Highway in Balochistan, flash floods and heavy rains keep exposing claims of quality construction. Ironically, one is forced to say, since Pakistani authorities lie low on accountability, and a lot of things happen based on relations, connections and material motivations, mother nature keeps revisiting these regions to expose the poor quality of construction. And poor and hapless Pakistanis watch in awe how officials progress in leaps and bounds.