LAHORE: With only three months till the expiry of the thrice-extended contract in December, the Lahore Waste Management Company (LWMC) has so far been unable, or is unwilling, to initiate the process for hiring contractors to keep the city clean – a procedure that may take at least six months and another few for the new contractors to mobilise machine and manpower.

This delay leaves around six months to a year uncovered between the end of current contracts and new ones coming into effect (qualification, bidding, evaluation and winning), and then charge taken on ground, unless the company plans to extend the existing contracts – many potential bidders fear that the delay has been deliberate to serve vested interests.

Company officials insist that the uncovered period would only be three months. But their claim contains two unverifiable hypotheses: the process would start immediately, and the new contractor be given only two months to mobilise resources.

City may become ‘filth depot’ for at least six months if delay persists

However, ground realities belie both claims. Even the documentation has not started yet, considering the current contractors took 14 months to take charge: the contract was signed on Nov 3, 2011 and phased mobilisation completed in January and February 2013 – when formal commencement of the contract started.

“Even if the process takes three months, the city will be converted into a filth depot within just a few days and trouble will compound with each passing hour,” says a former employee of the company.

The two international contractors currently operating – AlBayrak and Oz Pak – have been removing six tonnes of solid waste daily. When 40 per cent of the machinery of one of the contractors went out of operation, the entire city was stinking. Their original seven-year contracts expired early in January and February this year and have been extended thrice – first till Feb 29, then May 31 and finally Dec 31.

During these extension periods, the LWMC has not moved an inch towards a fresh process; it has not even finalised the pre-qualification criteria for potential bidders. Instead, it started toying with the idea of changing the operational model of the company, which it again has not been able to finalise despite forming three high-level sub-committees.

After Chief Minister Usman Buzdar chaired a meeting on Sept 26, 2019 and approved hiring of a consultant to remodel the company, a consultant was hired on Feb 15, which generated its own controversies and the process for engaging new bidders remained stalled.

What added to the mess was hiring and sacking of managing directors (MDs) of the LWMC. In the last two years, the company has had seven MDs -- with an average tenure of less than four months each. This is in addition to one chairman, who resigned within a few months of his reappointment.

According to the LWMC spokesman, a consultant has been hired who has completed 90 per cent of the work (pre-qualification); it would now be presented in the next Board of Directors meeting.

Insiders, however, consider it a lie: “The putative consultant submitted the criteria some six months ago, but it never went to the [board] for reasons best known to the management,” says an insider, who did not want to be named. “Even the consultant came under the radar over conflict of interest (one of the owners was a former employee of the LWMC, reportedly sub-contracting some services and partnering with one of the potential contractors). The consultant’s legality also came under question when the joint venture reported the death of a partner.”

Under the alternative operational model, the company wants to do “collection” itself and hire staff and vehicles for the purpose, explains a board member. However, given the quantum of corruption – almost all government agencies such as the local government department, Anti-Corruption Establishment are investigating bungling worth billions of rupees – even under the current “outsourcing” model, the company can hardly be trusted with full operations, he says.

When contacted, the recently removed managing director, Dr Shahzaib Husnain, who was holding the charge then, said certain decisions are beyond the power of the MD. “We were running from pillar to post to hasten the process, but to no avail.”

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2020