A geotechnical blunder

Considering the billions of taxpayers’ and donor money that is poured into public sector infrastructural projects and given the entrenched concerns about the poor quality of work across the board, one can expect the government to come under intense scrutiny in the 10th Parliament over how it assigns contracts, monitors work and claws back money from errant contractors.

The Ramotar administration has started at a severe disadvantage as it has inherited a series of opaque, ill-thought out and poorly done projects and the attendant culture. How this trend will be reversed will be a key test of President Ramotar’s determination to get things done right.

Much will undoubtedly come to light as the year progresses. A good example of what is to be expected came in the form of the report on the ill-fated Supenaam stelling. That report, almost two years old,  had been withheld from the public because the Jagdeo administration knew it would have unmasked the glaring incompetence in its supervision of costly works and its mollycoddling of favoured contractors.  The report should have been made public shortly after submission and should have led to immediate attempts to recover primarily from the engineering firm VIKAB and possibly BK, monies that had been wastefully spent on ill-advised and unapproved changes to the stelling. Moreover, the eventual failure of the stelling caused severe dislocation to business on the coast and required costly remedial work which former President Jagdeo had the gumption to say that the state would have to bear. VIKAB, of Trinidad,  which benefited handsomely from many government contracts in years past apparently no longer has a presence here and has not uttered a word on this report. Wherever it is located, the government should seek to have monies recovered from VIKAB as per the recommendation in the report by the engineers. BK’s responsibility in this matter should also be carefully examined even though the current thinking is that it operated on the basis of the engineer’s design.

The cover-up of the Supenaam stelling report and the absence of efforts to recover from the culpable parties even in the wake of the need to spend millions more to correct the flaws is only one of the grotesque features of the Jagdeo administration’s stewardship of major construction projects. One of the others was the assigning of work to contractors, which work was beyond their known and established competence. This, of course, was the case with the notorious Mr Fip Motilall despite the mantra-like chants from the public that awarding him the contract to build the Amaila access roads was a major blunder. The government however went ahead and from the very outset – as had been predicted by critics – there were problems. This culminated in the firing of Mr Motilall from the contract and now lawsuit and countersuit where ironically the government is seeking $700M in damages for the non-completion of works. If it fails in its quest to recover, the state should consider finding a way to properly surcharge all of those high officials who were involved in the squiring and monitoring of Mr Motilall for this project.

To make matters worse, the government now has to enlist other contractors to complete the work that had been assigned to Mr Motilall. This will inevitably lead to costs which are cumulatively higher than the original size of the contract as it entails fresh mobilization and comes amid different market conditions and better information on the terrain and weather challenges posed in the area.

While the Amaila Access Road and the Supenaam Stelling stand out as classic examples of poor contract awarding, engineering, supervising and accountability and are the baggage of the previous administration, it is clear that the practice is continuing in the Ramotar administration. How else does one characterize the calumny which was thankfully brought to the public’s attention by geotechnical engineer, Mr Charles Ceres. He related at a press conference on Friday that the government had only recently requested a quotation from him for geotechnical investigation of the site for the proposed specialty hospital even though groundwork had started on the location over two months ago.

Worse, the request for a quotation from Ceres’ firm was bereft of the requisite information on the project which would allow the engineer to make a sound decision.

“What essentially is happening here is that you’re seeing an indication of technical incompetence which is the norm,” said Ceres, adding that this will ultimately affect cost and performance of the facility.

Ceres pointed out that the document contained no description of the proposed facility, no layout or height plan. “I want to make this point simply because here you see a document which has no concept of what the project entails. The document that should go to the geotechnical engineer should be a document that has a project concept,” he said adding that if, for example, a hospital is being built, there may be roads in the area or an elevator. “There are special geotechnical engineering considerations which are applicable to a roadway, which are applicable to maybe an elevator pit that are not applicable to a foundation,” he said.
The document did not even contain a drawing of the layout of the site “so how can you give someone a proposal that will have any level of credibility when you don’t have the kind of detail that is required?” Ceres observed.

If this is the manner in which the government is embarking on this prestige project it needs to apply the brakes and back up. It is clear that there is haste to get this project going so that the government could proclaim it and exhibit it as one of its grand achievements. Nothing wrong with that, however it must not be done haphazardly as if the government has no clue of how to go about the job. This is the immediate challenge for President Ramotar. He must decipher how exactly these poor engineering decisions are being made and how they can be curtailed before they lead to more bungling as was the case with Supenaam and Amaila. Shouldn’t the geotechnical investigation have underpinned all proceedings? Why are things being done out of sequence.

President Ramotar is presiding over ministries that are little changed from the tenure of his predecessor. His is the task to ensure that the dubious and incompetent work which had come to characterize the Jagdeo administration doesn’t overwhelm his. There will be many more persons inspecting these projects given the present make-up of Parliament and it is advisable that the President pay heed to the concerns raised by Mr Ceres and other engineers about the state of engineering in the country and the best practices to be followed in these major projects.

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