Dams and fishy bidding

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Pakistan just cannot get it right with dams. That there need to be more dams to address an ever-increasing water crisis is not the issue. New dams have been needed for decades. The necessity is unquestionable, and they have not been built for any number of reasons including inter-provincial rivalry and poor planning to name but two. No proposal for a new dam in the last decade has been trouble free; there has been a lack of transparency associated with the bidding process, and the building of new dams and now another element of dubious bidding is added with the Mohmand dam project, the inauguration of which was due to happen on 2nd January and was postponed without explanation or a new date at the last minute.

Dams are expensive and the Mohmand is no exception. The price today is Rs300 billion and given the lessons of history this will inflate as the project proceeds. The issue at hand is that just a single bid to build the dam has been considered, made by a consortium of three firms one of which, Descon, is owned by none other than the Prime Ministers Adviser on Commerce and Industry Razzaq Daud. The second contestant was a consortium featuring the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) which was ‘technically disqualified’ and its bid not considered. A range of other contractors did not take part in the bidding and were reduced to being bystanders. At the very least there is more than a whiff of conflicting interests in play, and the suspicion that the PM adviser bid got preferential treatment.

The WAPDA was quick to say that there was no illegality in the process of awarding the project. Other potential bidders disagreed saying that the PTI claims of transparency and fair play in all things were questionable – and we can do little other than concur. There is an obvious clash of interests, there does not appear to have been a level playing field and contractors who have decades of experience building and completing mega-projects find themselves sidelined. Questions are being raised as to the precise nature of the ‘technicalities’ that killed off the FWO bid and the government should have invited more bids in order to ensure transparency and reasonable competition.

That does not appear to be the favoured modus-operandi for the incumbency that is trending towards authoritarian rule almost by the day, and is fast beginning to look no better than its predecessors. True the bid has yet to be scrutinised and formally accepted but the process is already tainted and once again there is an opportunity lost to stay on the straight and narrow. The PTI may try to play the ‘well it was not us that disqualified the FWO bid’ card, but this is a lame excuse. There has been no mega-project undertaken in the water sector since the construction of the Tarbela dam in 1967. The Basha dam is also mired in controversy and Pakistan gets drier and thirstier by the day. The ‘Naya Pakistan’ mantra is beginning to look distinctly tarnished.