The unrealistic deadlines for the Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project’s completion have hung like an albatross around the neck of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government.
The fourth deadline to launch the bus project lapsed at the end of 2018 — but it did not go unnoticed. With the city engulfed by traffic gridlocks, the anger and frustration of Peshawar’s residents was palpable. In turn, a volley of media criticism was sent the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government’s way, asking them to uphold the commitments made by the PTI’s last provincial government that was led by Pervez Khattak.
As March rolled around this year, a stern warning from the Chief Minister’s House was issued to remind officials involved in the project that the only reason they had not been sacked yet was to avoid further delays.
The Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit project was supposed to be a shining example of the KP government’s governance. Instead, it has become a case study in how not to manage an urban scheme
“Do not test the patience of the people of the city,” the notification asserted.
A week and a half later, the KP government sacked two officials who were spearheading the project: Peshawar Development Authority (PDA) Director General Israrul Haq and the secretary of the KP Transport Department, Kamran Rehman Khan. The move indicated that more removals were in the offing as officials were now to be held accountable. The apparent basis for the removals appeared to be a damning report about the BRT project that was submitted by the Provincial Inspection Team (PIT) two months ago to the chief minister.
With the blame game in full swing, the removal of two senior officials perhaps makes for good optics. But what brought matters to a head? What follows is an investigation into the BRT project, based on background interviews with officials and politicians with some knowledge and expertise in delivering mega-projects. How did a project aimed at urban mobility become one of the most controversial subjects of our time?
What's in a PC-1?
The TransPeshawar Company, responsible for the BRT project design, procurement, implementation, and service contract management, claims on its website that the BRT route “will run from Chamkani to Hayatabad, a total distance of 26 kilometres with 31 stations.” Some 500,000 users were expected to benefit on a daily basis; a fleet of at least 450 buses with a capacity of up to 95 people each were to be inducted for the purpose.
The original plan was a BRT of 25.8 km of which 14.9 km was at grade, 6 km was elevated, and 4.9 km was in a tunnel. The total number of BRT routes stood at eight — out of which only one is being built as a dedicated BRT route while the rest are all feeder routes.
But all government projects start with a PC-1, a project document that lists why the project is needed, what it’ll do, justification for the same, location, duration, cost estimates and the tangible and non-tangible benefits associated with it. What exists now is very different from the document used to kick-start the project.
A cursory glance at the revised PC-1 of the project shows that the Peshawar BRT is now 27.3 kilometres long; with an additional elevated structure of 1.6 kilometres that includes three flyovers and an elevated U-turn.
This makes it a 30-kilometres-long track, as mentioned in the environmental monitoring report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) earlier this year. Around 13 kilometres of the total structure is now above the ground, the rest is either at-grade or part of the eight underpasses.
“There was no discussion prior to the approval of the project,” argues Inayatullah, the former senior minister for Local Government and Rural Development. The former minister was in-charge of the attached department that is constructing the BRT.
“Although I cannot say for sure that there was any financial corruption, there definitely was incompetence on behalf of the government,” says the former minister. “There was no detailed engineering design when the project was executed.”
Expressing bafflement over the timing of the beautification project in Peshawar that was initiated in tandem with the BRT, he says it was impossible to understand how a one-billion-rupee project was simultaneously being carried out when it was obvious that the BRT corridor would undo it.
In fact, this accusation — of an absence of a detailed engineering design — is raised by quite a few critics of the BRT project.
A senior management official of the BRT, not authorised to speak to the media, explained that the engineering design of the project was based on a pre-feasibility study. The revised PC-1 states that detailed engineering design was completed from February to November 2017 but the consultant “is still engaged to ensure detailed design variations as per project requirement.”
In other words, work had begun on the project without the nitty-gritty of design and its impact being sorted out.
The official further explained that the Peshawar BRT was initially planned to be constructed on the basis of the design of one in the US state of Oregon. The Oregon model is considered an environment-friendly one since it protects a water channel below the surface.
This plan faced its first bump when the team discovered water under the surface at Chamkani area. It was then that the officials improvised and opted for an immediate revision in design.
“The BRT had to be above the ground and in accordance with local needs and dynamics,” the official adds.
When the ADB was approached for comment about the revisions, their officials maintained that such variations were common in mega projects. The representatives added that it was unreasonable to say the whole project was faulty on the basis of the assumption that the team was unaware about water under the surface.
“We are satisfied by the nature of the work,” argue ADB officials. “There are 18 points across the corridor that need to be rectified before the BRT becomes functional.”
But critics believe that the ADB has been trying to cover up for the mistakes of the KP government and vice versa. This assertion is based on hundreds of emails sent by the Project Management Unit (PMU) to the project heads pointing out mistakes and irregularities in the design. These pleadings fell on deaf ears.
In one such instance, it was noticed on December 6, 2018, that a conceptual design for visual assessment was put into practical usage by the Project Management and Construction Supervision Consultant (PMCSC) for the BRT project.
This matter had actually been brought to the forefront earlier in an October 23, 2018, meeting called by the additional chief secretary. During the meeting, officials discovered the U-shaped girders, which currently lay dumped on the Northern Bypass in Peshawar, were built and carried to the site for installation without realising that it was only a conceptual design not meant for implementation.
“It caused losses worth millions to the exchequer,” claims the official. “We were told that the girders will now be used as drainage pipes.”
The idea to elevate bicycle lane in areas where the BRT is elevated was also pondered over. But it was shelved as it did not comply with international practices.
Another letter dated December 19, 2018, regretted that the retrofitting of the pier shaft — the structural component of the elevated section of the corridors — has been undertaken at various locations of the BRT. “Retrofitting pier shaft is a substandard practice which could potentially impact the design strength of the elements by compromising the required strength and integrity of the structural component,” the letter notes.
Findings of the PIT report
On January 14, 2019, a meeting to review the progress of the BRT Project was convened at the Chief Minster’s Secretariat. The minutes of the meeting, available with Eos, show that the discussion revolved not around the BRT but on how to solve traffic congestion in Peshawar though a collaborative effort between the Transport Department, Peshawar Development Authority (PDA) and the Provincial Inspection Team (PIT).
The highlight of the meeting, however, was when the PDA director general ruled out any chances of BRT operations in totality till June 2019; only the Chamkani Bus Station was projected to be operational by March 23, 2019. The meeting ended with more questions than answers.
But, on January 30, 2019, the PIT submitted a 27-page report directly to Chief Minister Mahmood Khan.
The one official whom the government appointed from within the PDA was removed within five hours because he was found to be implicated in corruption and involved in a voluntary return plea bargain with NAB.
The 27-page report of the provincial inspection team says that, “havoc has been played with public money through faulty planning and designing, negligence in execution of work, and poor management of the project.”
It further adds that, before launch of the BRT, the traffic congestion problem was resolved to a great extent and questions the motive of demolishing the same immediately after completion of the said project.
The report also observes that the BRT should have been elevated throughout its length, which could have avoided the present traffic gridlocks, and also catered by future increase in mixed traffic. Presently, the traffic congestion has been found at places where the BRT stations have been constructed at-grade rather than underground.
Further, the post-BRT carriageway width for mixed traffic at the locations of the BRT bus stations has been reduced by 40 percent on average as compared to pre-BRT conditions.
Moreover, the non-maintenance of a uniform number of lanes for mixed traffic through the BRT route had created funnels or bottlenecks at the locations of BRT bus stations, which add to the traffic congestion.
There was also no provision in the revised PC-I for installation of louvres and sound barriers at the elevated portions of Reach-II of the project, which are required to safeguard the privacy of nearby buildings and counter the noise pollution in the vicinity. Moreover, the drainage system for the elevated portion of the BRT project also needed to be properly designed. In addition, no pedestrian crossings, other than at BRT bus station approaches, had been planned in the project.
The PIT report also found that the washrooms at the BRT bus stations were being constructed without proper foundation and lintel beams, with poor quality brick work. It also says that the bike lane had not been maintained throughout the BRT corridor. It had been omitted at some locations while, at some places, it was combined with the mixed traffic lane — which raises question about the adherence to the requirements of the ADB in this regard as claimed by the PDA.
The PIT report also observes that the concrete work of the project, which ought to have been constructed as panels, was in fact built as a 40-metre-long concrete block. Therefore, the work was not done according to standard engineering practice. Resultantly, cracks were found propagating in the concrete works.
Where the PIT report hints towards loss to the national exchequer, it did not point out any financial misappropriation.
That said, such was the scathing nature of the report that officials new and old had all taken notice.
The PDA, when approached, said that the majority of the findings had been already rectified as the report was two months old. “Some of the observations made by the PIT were unreal because they do not fit the scheme of things as planned out in the project,” says an official from the department.
In fact, most officials approached by Eos for a comment declined to do so on the record, arguing that a new director general could explain things better to the media.
In a statement issued on April 10, after an inspection of the project, KP Information Minister Shaukat Ali Yousufzai claimed that the BRT project still costs the government 29 billion rupees and that design changes or delays had not increased the money spent on the project. The other money, according to him, was for buying buses (8 million rupees), construction of plazas (10 billion) and road construction and repairs (11 billion).
Meanwhile, the former KP chief minister, Pervez Khattak, whose tenure had seen the BRT project begin, also rejected the PIT report. A National Accountability Bureau (NAB) probe into the project has been sealed by the Peshawar High Court till the completion of this project.
Sources said that the ADB was also requested to respond to the questions raised by the PIT report.
Despite the findings of the PIT, the KP government buried its head in the sand.
Even worse, the government announced the BRT launch for March 23, 2019. For face-saving, it then termed it a soft launch. But as the dreaded deadline approached, the Mahmood Khan-led government had no choice but to face reality and call off the launch altogether. An irked chief executive of the province promised action against those responsible for yet another gaffe.
Amid escalating tensions in the provincial government, groupings emerged within as some PTI members backed the current staff to complete the work while others believed it was time for accountability.
On the eve of March 22, Yousufzai arranged a casual ride on the BRT track for journalists despite the chief minister’s decision to cancel the March 23 launch.
Deconstructing the delay
In a trove of internal project documents that Eos managed to obtain, there is more than enough to suggest that the delay is not out of stupidity. There is a logic attached to it.
One of the documents, for example, argues that the PDA failed to provide details of the revised rates as per the Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) Contract Clause 12.3(a) & (b) (Conditions of the contract for construction, June 2010, Multilateral Development Bank Harmonised Edition). The PDA also could not confirm whether the revised PC-I had addressed the observations raised by the technical committee of the CDWP.
Another summary explains that the executing agency was instructed to revise rates through a market-based rate analysis (MBRA) by obtaining three quotations from authorised vendors and applying inflation and premium. The PDA submitted the receipts of revised rates for Reach-I, II and III but the documents lacked stamps and signed copies from vendors. It also did not outline how the authority calculated the rates and whether inflation and premium had been adjusted.
“The description of majority of the items also changed in the Revised PC-I (September 2018) from the version submitted to the PDWP in May 2018,” explains a source. “No justification was given.”
KP Information Minister Shaukat Ali Yousufzai claimed that the BRT project still costs the government 29 billion rupees and that design changes or delays had not increased the money spent on the project.
The PDA also failed to provide a record of ‘variation orders’ initiated by contractors and endorsed by the engineer. It is also did not submit construction drawings or details for the additional scope of works. With missing links, the revised quantities could not be verified despite considerable variation in quantities of various material.
The documents explain that the development authority also failed to comply with the KP chief minister’s approved summary for a 20 percent increase in infrastructure rates. Furthermore, the PDA adopted the 2016 market rate survey (MRS) instead of the approved MRS 2017. The MRS is a system employed by the government to assess the price of items in the open market.
Amusingly, the authority also erred arithmetically which led to a cost escalation. The syntax errors revealed that the application of metric units used for revised rates did not add up to the calculated rates.
An approximate 300 million rupee increase in the contract cost of the Project Management and Construction Supervision Consultants (PMCSC) was also witnessed. Meanwhile, it was also learnt that the PMCSC reduced its supervision staff by 40 percent when only 60 per cent of the infrastructure work was completed. Ironically, the contractual cost of the PMCSC was enhanced by 36 percent at the same time.
Similarly, the service charges of the Peshawar Implementation Unit (PIU) and PDA were also increased by 25 percent without outlining expenditures.
The PDA also applied double premium of 25 percent on the contractor’s profit and overheads and added another two per cent for health and safety.
The concept of associating premium — meant for fast-track implementation of the project — cannot be justified since the quick completion time (six months) in the contract was not achieved.
Although the PIT report does not directly lay blame on anyone, the director general PDA wrote a letter to NAB, after relinquishing his charge, and presented himself for all processes of accountability.
What happens next?
The new documented deadline for the BRT is June 30, 2019. This is the second extension of work on the project. The first phase of the contract was from December 2017 till June 2018. Currently, the BRT track is ready, with just one component called the “castle curve” missing. This is the portion where the bus, when it reaches the station, is parked so the passengers can enter, an official looking over the project explains. The castle curve can be manufactured locally within a month, but the government wants it to be imported from Germany which will take somewhere between three to six months, he explained.
The case of the Peshawar BRT is further complicated now since the officials who have been removed from the project are the ones who had been associated with the project for the longest time. The PDA director general, who is also the director of the BRT project, will need to be substituted with another official. This might seem to be an easy task but three well-reputed officials have already refused to take charge.
The one official whom the government appointed from within the PDA was removed within five hours because he was found to be implicated in corruption and involved in a voluntary return plea bargain with NAB. Perhaps the most immediately difficult decision for the next person in charge would be the signature required for financial transactions, which according to officials, would take a month and a half.
“The signature would have to be sent to the Economic Affairs Division in Islamabad by the KP government and then to the ADB office in Manila for verification,” explained an official of the PDA.
The signatures are then electronically transferred into a device which takes an additional 10 days and, for the funds to be transferred, it takes another 15 days.
“The first job of the new project director would be to sign 39 billion rupees,” says the official dealing with the situation at hand. Even if the new PDA director general takes charge by April 15, 2019 and everything works out perfectly well, the money can only be transferred to the project by June 15.
Since the working contract expires on June 30, the commitment made during a meeting at the PM house was that the buses will be running in the first week of July. “If the KP government does not take swift decisions,” argues the official, “we will have to go for another extension, which means further escalation of the project [cost].”
Secondly, another headache for the government is having to deal with the Variation Order (VO), according to another senior official of the PDA. The revised PC-1 was planned in accordance with the estimated costs. The VO depends on cost of material, quantity, time and scope of work, “all of which have increased with time,” he explains, adding that, in some places, they have had to use material and equipment that were not even part of the PC-1.
“This means that we will have to renegotiate the price with the contractor. In case of any disagreement, they will go to the arbitration court because the project is not locally funded and we might have to pay a penalty more than we even expect.”
The writer is an investigative journalist based in Peshawar. He tweets @IftikharFirdous
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 14th, 2019