By Zubair Ahmed
After three seasons mired in a combination of obstructions, the improvement work of State Highway from Bambooflat to Wimberly Gunj may have commenced. This stretch is one among the five portions of the State Highway-10.
Three major state highways and district roads, traversing through villages and settlements of Ferrar Gunj Tehsil, on the eastern side of Andaman Trunk Road haven’t seen any improvement in the last six years. In fact, the roads were literally left to disappear in many stretches.
To stir the obtuse administration out of its slumber, the public employed all possible means to communicate their agony and frustration, with no discernible outcome.
The sunshine during the last few days may have brightened up the prospects of the road work to begin. But, it still remains a herculean task for the authorities to win back the trust and confidence of general public after a deluge of hollow promises and unfulfilled commitments in the last three years.
The irony is that when it rains, roads become unmotorable and, when rain stops, water supply gets curtailed. This is how an evergreen tropical heaven is mismanaged. The post-colonial development trajectory of the Islands visibly misses perceptive understanding of the territory or its topography.
We are yet to develop a durable and sustainable process to either construct roads or harvest rainwater in a territory with 2000+mm rain. Instead of finding different ways to blame the climatic conditions, research and development should be on finding a permanent solution to these problems. But, the canvass is too big for the minions to paint a rosy picture.
Negligence or indifference is a birthright here without any accountability. The process of tenders and bids for the roads have become a mockery, with all involved entities – the authorities, department, contractors, PRIs, politicians – equally responsible and accountable for the criminal delay and utter failure in completion of the works.
One can blame closure of quarry, rain, Covid, or a combination of all these factors for the delay in the execution of the tendered work, but the Andaman and Nicobar Public Works Department (APWD) cannot exonerate itself for the worst upkeep of the existing roads with all its in-house paraphernalia.
A department spread across the territory in 23 divisions with one Chief Engineer, 2 Superintending Engineers, 23 Executive Engineers, 90+ Assistant Engineers, 300+ Junior Engineers and a fleet of Surveyors, Architects, Town Planners, 3000+ mazdoors, APWD still struggles to keep its mandate of providing good roads they are entrusted with.
At the same time, public saw construction of National Highway from Port Blair to Ferrar Gunj, in all its glory.
“The budgets are also a factor. On National Highway, each kilometre of road is constructed at a cost of Rs 3-4 crore whereas, for State Highway, it’s just Rs 80-90 lakh,” Tej Bahadur, Supt. Engineer, APWD clarified.
The Department, with not many feathers in its cap, is on a constant downslide without an able head. With D Balaji, the Chief Engineer retiring this month end, the Administration couldn’t find any of the present SEs from the local cadre, capable to head the department. A vacancy circular for appointment of SE on deputation has been already floated. With every passing year, the budget estimate is substantially cut by the Administration. Despite, ninety percent of the works outsourced to contractors, the department, blamed to be one of the most corrupt, has also failed to monitor the works and take action against the defaulters.
The present predicament of the rural roads is just a manifestation of the poor state of affairs inside APWD.
Story of Six Stretches of State Highways
From North Bay to Shoal Bay 19, Bambooflat to Ferrargunj, Saithankhari to Ograbraj, the State Highways are truncated into six stretches, which connects 13 Panchayats to the National Highway that further connects to the capital city.
The stretch from North Bay to Hope Town was to begin way back after the Tsunami. Now, made a part of the dream Andaman Marine Drive, the estimate prepared isn’t sanctioned. It’s too early to comment on the prospect of this stretch.
Chunna Bhatta-Ferrar Gunj (SH-9)
The work of Chunna Batta-Ferrargunj Road passing through Kadakkachang is funded from Central Road Fund (CRF), Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). The work was awarded to Ragasumum Constructors in 2017 and the completion date was in February 2019. Only a small portion of 4.5 kms is widened and a single layer of metal laid.
Based on a complaint received, the Enlistment Authority of APWD has suspended all business with the Contractor for next two years citing the ‘most’ delay among all the delays in road works pertaining to Ferrar Gunj Tehsil.
The Suspension Order further reiterates that the ongoing works of the Contractor are however, not going to be affected, and has to be mandatorily completed by the Contractor as per the conditions stipulated in the contract agreement.
On the one hand, the Contractor is suspended for defaulting, but the delayed work has been entrusted to the same contractor citing ongoing works. If the contractor is a defaulter, he would have been dealt as per the provisions of contract agreement.
Will the half-hearted action with ample loopholes make the Contractor fulfil the contractual obligations and expedite the work?
Bambooflat-Wimberly Gunj (SH-10)
This is the most used stretch of State Highway-10 that connects the villages to Bambooflat Jetty. The tender for widening and improvement was awarded to Sanjay Kumar Singh, Campbell Bay for Rs 5.17 cr. The work was supposed to commence in January 2019 and complete it by July 2020.
With no respite in sight, a Citizens’ Forum formed Human Chain as well as sat on Dharna before the Covid pandemic, demanding immediate repair of the road.
The road re-constructed after Tsunami haven’t seen any improvement or maintenance in the last six years.
“The failure of Road Construction Division (RCD) in maintaining this stretch of road is unpardonable,” said Abdul Gafoor, Citizen Forum.
RCD has remained without an Executive Engineer for the last three years. It has approximately 400 mazdoors and machinery to undertake minor repairs.
“The work will start in a couple of days, be assured,” said the Contractor, Sanjay Kumar Singh when asked about the work. It’s learnt that the Contractor has engaged another agency for the work.
Wimberly Gunj to Wright Myo
As the department is still dilly-dallying with the estimate for this particular stretch, it would take not less than three years for the work to start. The estimate, prepared for Rs 12 crores with proper drains and other components, is returned without sanction. The planning section has cited low budgetary allocation to APWD sector in FY 2020-21 as the reason and advised RCD to restrict to just improvement of existing road.
Even if the stretch between Bambooflat and Wimberly Gunj is improved, this particular portion will remain potholed for the next three years till RCD expedites revision of the estimate and the process starts.
Wright Myo to Shoal Bay 15
Another stretch under Central Road Fund, this work was awarded in May 2017 and supposed to be completed by May 2019. Only 4 kms has been widened till Shoal Bay 9. The work came to an halt after villagers stopped the construction seeking compensation for the land used for widening the road. Though, the excuse is the protest by the villagers, but the work on this stretch is also inflicted by the same ‘delay’ virus!
Shoal Bay 15 to Shoal Bay 19
The journey of this road has taken more than 3 decades. Shoal Bay-19, a village completely cut-off and separated by Reserve Forest finally got sanction for a road, after de-reserving the 5-km stretch. The work is under progress with 23 culverts constructed and metal laying done.
Saithankhari to Ograbraj Junction (SH-11)
In 2013, this particular stretch was raised and constructed at a cost of Rs 9 crores, which did not last for even one year. Nobody was penalized, and the condition of the road worsened after each rainy season. APWD also failed to maintain the road.
A fresh tender was awarded for widening and improvement of the road including CC drain, retaining wall and culverts, costing Rs 7.74 crores. The work supposed to commence on 28 December 2018 and complete by 28 December 2020 wasn’t started citing scarcity of stone aggregates due to closure of quarries.
A protest by the villagers blocking the National Highway forced the department to intervene and finally decided to provide stone aggregates to the Contractor from the departmental stock.
The road constructed in March 2020 is a classic example of shoddy work, as the road didn’t last even six months. The whole stretch is filled with potholes.
When asked about the poor condition of the road, Tej Bahadur, SE, APWD said that the work isn’t complete and one more layer has to be laid.
There is an allegation that the stone aggregate supplied by the Department was sub-standard. 2800 cbm of metal lying at the Namunaghar quarry site since 2009 at the mercy of all natural elements, which had lost its strength were used for construction of the road.
The contractor is already paid Rs 4.46 crore and Rs 22 lakhs has been recovered from the bill.
“We have conducted all mandatory tests and the quality of the material has been checked,” said Tej Bahadur.
“We are just improving the existing roads, and not constructing new roads, and there are places affected by water logging due to high tide,” he said.
The question that remains unanswered is why is the Department unconcerned about addressing the fundamental problem and just paving layers on the surface knowing well that the roads won’t last.
The Road Ahead
APWD, which really needs a shake-up, has lost confidence of the people as well as the authorities on top. It isn’t in a position to either dictate terms to the Contractors and get the work done or convince the higher ups about the basic issues, it’s facing.
“The only priority of the higher officials is centrally sponsored schemes, and they aren’t accountable to the general public or sensitive towards their basic needs,” said a senior officer of the Administration.
The State Highways and District Roads in the rural areas, which come under APWD are in worst condition, but the focus of the Administration is about Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), a central scheme to construct roads under Panchayati Raj.
“The Administration had put all efforts to enlist contractors for PMGSY, who weren’t forthcoming due to the stipulated maintenance clause for rural roads, which they knew won’t last one year” said an Engineer of APWD.
If quality check and monitoring of work is done strictly, while the work is in progress, the road will remain durable even after the one-year liability of the Contractor ends.
APWD also needs to realize that after that period, the department should be prepared to maintain the roads with its existing men and machinery.
Moreover, the Department can also incorporate five year maintenance component while preparing estimate, which would force the Contractor to do a neat job.
The department’s mandate shouldn’t be just floating tenders, collecting cuts and leave the road to disappear and the process to repeat.
It’s high time, APWD gears up and focus on R&D and come up with specifications for durable road construction processes especially for a territory like the Islands with heavy rainfall and short working seasons.