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Who will reform the PWD?

By HH Mohrmen   

Much has been written about this very important department of the state. The editor in her weekly piece devoted one entire column to highlight the state of affairs in the department. It is perhaps the only department which has maximum numbers of letters to the editor written against the sub-standard work the department executes in constructing roads in the rural areas and particularly the Guwahati-Shillong road which is the gateway to Meghalaya.

This column is a response to a letter to the editor carried by this paper in its November 8, issue. The letter gave a startling revelation of the mess in the Public Works Department (PWD) of Meghalaya and the whistle blower deserves a pat on the back for daring to call a spade a spade. Now it is the duty of civil society to protect the whistle blower and to see that the Department does not initiate proceedings to punish the person (if he or she is still in the service). Dr. Mukul Sangma too should realize that if his Government is to deliver, it not only must protect whistle blowers but also encourage employees to bring to light the rot in their respective departments. There is no point having grand policies and funds to match if the delivery mechanism is in shambles.

PWD is one department that has failed to deliver, or delivers sub-standard work which results in roads needing repair every year like the Jowai-Shillong road or the Jowai-Amlarem-Muktapur road. Are our engineers under-qualified and cannot even design roads which will last more than a year? Or is it because of the sub-standard work? I believe our engineers are qualified. I know that those of my classmates who are engineers (about 8 of them) in the PWD are all toppers since our high svhool days in Jowai. The poor quality roads or buildings come from the politician- contractor-technocrat nexus. It is an insidious connection. On one hand we have thousands of contractors of various classes and on the other the construction companies. All contractors and companies have political patronage.

The letter writer has correctly observed that there are few big contractors in the PWD who treat the department (especially officers in the helm of power) like their business partners with whom they share the spoils. The contractors, particularly the three construction companies, have a symbiotic relation with the government. These companies with all the money and the machinery at their disposal, treat the PWD staff like dirt; they sideline those engineers who do not comply with their whims. These companies owned by politicians and semi-politicians, think that because they own the machines to execute the work, they no longer need any monitoring or supervision. According to them the SAs SOs SDOs etc of the PWD and even engineers are dispensable like toilet paper. A sectional assistant once confided that when he complained that the road was not made as per specifications in the estimate, the contractor who, about a decade ago was only a coal-miner, a driver or a cow herd, rebuked him rudely saying, “What do you know?” We need to remind the contractors and the companies that the staff of the Department are eyes, ears and voice of the people, and that whatever they do is in public interest.

The November 8, letter pointed out that instead of 10 percent profit, the companies are now trying to get 90 percent profit for 10 percent work done. How else would the owner of a company or engineers be able to become instant millionaires if not by looting the public exchequer? There is nothing wrong with making profit but the question is how much returns do we expect from one job? Or are we still of the opinion that it is alright to steal from the government? The companies want big profit and fast but how much is too much or enough for them? This is one problem that the engineers are facing; they have to comply with the dictates of the semi-literate owners of these construction companies who have all the necessary political backing. Since they own the necessary equipments, at times the companies also hold the engineers and even the department to ransom. The Department is at the company’s beck and call. A recent example is the repair work of the Jowai-Badarpur road where the engineer had to literarily beg the owner of the company to execute the work since other companies were unwilling to do so. It is high time that government encourages companies from outside to operate in the state and prevent monopoly over big contract works by local companies.

“It is a common grouse of contractors that they do not break even,’ said one staff of the PWD. “The contractors now demand more than 50 percent profit and don’t care a damn about the quality of work. And if we don’t toe their line and revise the estimates then the next thing is we get calls from MLAs,” he laments. It did not take long for me to verify the allegation. Last Friday, E Khyriem Headman of Tympang Club, Iamusiang and I met the contractor to complain against the sub-standard repair work of Jowai-Amlarem-Muktapur road. The contractor, Pyrkhat Dkhar nonchalantly told us, “I am, in fact doing the Department a favour here because I will not get any profit from this particular work”. He also added, “To compensate for the loss in executing this work the Chief Engineer SB Chyrmang has allotted me another work on the Nartiang-Nongpoh road”. After he had finished I said, “Are you trying to say that the engineers who did the estimates are so incompetent that they did not even include the ten percent profit? Or is it because you want to be a millionaire instantly and ten percent is not enough?” He kept quiet.

Engineers who earnestly want to do good work express despair at the state of affairs in the department; they feel hamstrung and have no option but to flow with the tide. These are engineers who would not bribe for plum postings and therefore would not be given charge of any section or division for many years for not coughing up enough money to pay the politicians.

There are other engineers who are puppets of politicians. When tenders are floated, they don’t allot work without the confirmation of their political masters. They do not behave like professionals who are qualified to do the job, but bend their spine to please their political masters in lieu of a choice posting. Sometimes these engineers stoop so low and behave like political agent of the MLAs. They would insist that a contractor get a recommendation note from the MLA for allotment of work. They even check the antecedents of a contractor; if he is a supporter of the opposition candidate they will make sure he does not get any work. This is happening in Jowai. In fact, these engineers are hands in glove with the MLA or minister to manipulate allotment of work in the department. They treat the department like the MLA’s personal fiefdom.

There is another category of staff in the PWD. They are engineers, sectional officers and sectional assistants who are themselves involved in government contract work. They execute the work using ‘benami’ names of their close relatives. Now if the same person is to execute, supervise and monitor the work, then what quality of work do we expect?

The letter writer rightly mentioned that there is no point in promoting tourism while our roads are in tatters. The state’s development depends on the kind of the roads we have. Farmers face difficulty to transport their products because of bad roads; the health departments’ delivery of services is hampered by poor road conditions. Roads are indeed the backbone of the economy of the state and our engineers know they are shouldering a huge responsibility. The people of the state have high expectations from them. It’s time that the entire staff of the PWD rises to the occasion and works for the development of the state. Engineers in the PWD should unite and break the contractor-politician-technocrat nexus and set themselves free from the mental-shackle that has enslaved them. Then only will they be able to give their best service to the state.

People may have lost faith in the political system, but still trust some engineers and the staff of the Department.

(The writer is a social researcher and thought leader)

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