‘Contractors always complete work under supervision of government engineers’

The Jabdhighat Bridge over the Babai River in Bardiya that collapsed last week was constructed by Pappu Construction. The bridge, constructed at a total cost of Rs 190.75 million, collapsed even before it was formally handed over to the government. The Federation of Contractors Association of Nepal has refuted the charges that the bridge collapsed due to the negligence of the contractor. The 425-metre bridge that linked the East-West Highway, caved in last Monday after the water level rose in the Babai River due to the monsoon rains. Sabin Mishra of The Himalayan Times spoke to Rajendra Raj Sharma, joint secretary and spokesperson for the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport, and Hari Narayan Prasad Rauniyar, managing director of Pappu Construction, to know why the bridge collapsed. Excerpts:

‘Contractors always complete work under supervision of government engineers’

                            — Hari Narayan Prasad Rauniyar       

The Jabdhighat Bridge, which was constructed by your company, collapsed last week. What was the reason behind it?

After signing the contract paper we visited the site and immediately advised the government to make changes to the design of the bridge. Due to the nature of the land there we suggested the government to construct the bridge under the well foundation model. The Department of Road had provided us a design with pile foundation model. Though we were hesitant to construct the bridge based on the pile foundation model the government refused to make changes. The data related to the water level of the river that was provided to us was also wrong. The water level of the river is supposed to be two metres below the beam of the bridge but the water flooded the bridge. The government provided us data which stated that the scouring power of the flood is four metres, however our study has shown that the scouring power is more than eight metres. Another thing is that after the floods of 2015, nearly 60 per cent of river area has been silted and the river flows through the remaining 40 per cent area. We did request the division road office to remove the sand from the river but they did nothing. Even after facing such hurdles, we completed the construction work of the bridge on July 5, 2016. As per the contract paper, we also had the responsibility of maintaining the bridge for one year, which has also already completed.

 You have mentioned that the faulty design is the reason behind the bridge collapsing and that you were aware of the potential risks. So, why did you go ahead with the project?

As a contractor, we have to follow the guidelines of the government. Contractors can only make suggestions to the government. We do not have any decisive role. The government agencies refused to implement our suggestions and we had no choice but to start the construction work as per the directives of the government. If we do not follow the directives then there is a danger that the government may block the payments. All the materials used for the construction of the Jabdhighat Bridge had been approved by the concerned government agencies so one cannot blame us for using inferior materials. Just to make my point clearer what you will notice is that the pile of the bridge has collapsed but not a single rod has cracked. I would still say that we never compromised with the materials. Moreover, we contractors always complete our work under the supervision of government engineers.

Did the government agencies actually inspect the work from the initial phase till the end?

Yes. If we do not follow government rules then we will not be paid for our work. In fact, we still have to receive the final payment. If there was any discrepancy in our work then the government would have sent back the bill straightaway. I had also sent a letter to the concerned government agencies to hand over the bridge as soon as we finished the construction work, however they have not yet acknowledged it.

The Jabdhighat Bridge collapsed within 14 months of construction. People are wondering how many such bridges could there be.

It is better to ask this question to the government agencies because they are the ones responsible for completing the designing process of the bridge. Generally, in India, they take four years to complete the study of such projects, however we have been finalising it within three to four months. Top level bureaucrats and other government agencies should give a thought to on how we can make our construction projects sturdier.

Contractors’ capacity to handle such projects has also been questioned many times. What is the problem?

Our construction industry is still in the initial phases of development. The government has just amended the rules so that local contractors can bid for projects of up to Rs one billion. Before this amendment local contractors could bid for projects worth only up to Rs 70 million. At the moment I can confidently say that local contractors are capable to construct any project in the country.

‘Our major problem is starting projects without making proper preparations’

                              — Rajendra Raj Sharma

The recent floods and landslides triggered by the heavy monsoon rains have affected numerous strategic roads, bridges and other small roads. Were you prepared for such events?

The ministry is responsible for the construction and maintenance of all the strategic road networks across the country. The Department of Road (DoR) is also already prepared to handle any disaster. The DoR always has the required machines and heavy equipment ready to clear roads and make them operable if there is any obstacle due to any unforeseen event. We, in fact, are always alert in the four months of June to September and we actually declare this period as an emergency period. So, there will not be any huge problem in getting the strategic roads and major highways repaired and in operation.

 The Jabdhighat Bridge over the Babai River in Bardiya, which had just been completed, collapsed due to the floods even before it was formally handed over to the government. Contractors have blamed the government for approving a faulty design which led to the bridge collapsing. Is it true?

I’ve also read comments made by the Federation of Contractors Association of Nepal (FCAN) on the issue of the Jabdhighat Bridge collapsing in Bardiya. There is this trend in our country whereby we are very quick to point fingers at each other and pass on the blame. The government has formed a committee to conduct a study on why the bridge collapsed, so before the committee submits its final report we cannot start speculating and blaming each other. Constructing a bridge is a very complex issue. I think FCAN wants to create pressure on the government and other concerned agencies through its hasty comments. They are making claims without any technical details to support those claims. We have to wait for the final report to learn of the causes. Instead of blaming each other we need to take this is a lesson and make sure that such incidents do not occur in the future. Whoever is responsible for the mishap should be held accountable and punished.

As per FCAN’s claims government compelled contractor to construct the bridge even when the contractor had pointed out the faulty design. What do you have to say on this?

They are making such comments just to lay the blame on the government. If the design was faulty as they have claimed then why do they not spell out the technical details of the fault? For instance, why aren’t they talking about the calculations made regarding the water flow in the river? When making comments they need to be precise about the technical faults that they believe led to the bridge collapsing. A layman may believe their words but an expert would look for technical details. Hence, without the detail study we cannot say anything now. The study team is in the field already. I have also heard about contractors complaining that the government opted for pile foundation instead of well foundation for the Jabdhighat Bridge. I want to clarify that the well foundation is outdated and costlier than the pile foundation. Thus, we chose the pile foundation while designing the bridge.

The Development Committee of the Legislature-Parliament has directed MoPIT to prepare designs of projects based on the geological factors. How would you take this directive?

Professionally, we have been following the basic engineering standards for every governmental work. We can raise questions on the capacity of an individual, however, we cannot go beyond the basic standard practices.

The government has been consistently criticised for weak inspection modality that has led to such incidents. Do you agree with this?

The workload on government officers has risen in recent years. We have limited human resources but the working area has been increasing everyday. Due to high work volume, supervision may be somewhat weak, however, we have been inspecting all projects.

Contractors have also been criticised for not having capacity to handle such projects. Is this also a problem why projects do not get completed on time?

Our major problem is starting projects without making proper preparations due to which we cannot complete projects within the set deadline. Another issue is that there is public pressure to complete projects once they have been announced and project managers do not have the required time to make timely preparations. Also, the contractors do not possess the capacity to handle such big projects like constructing bridges. They do not have enough human resources. Contractors actually do not have engineers, equipment and other necessary things that they commit in the contract bidding process.