Published On : Fri, May 19th, 2017

Are few contractors being favoured? Disturbing Mr. C.M.! Please intervene

Mumbai/Nagpur: The Maharashtra Nagpur – Mumbai Super Expressway which is known to be Chief Minister Fadnavis’ flagship infrastructure is under fire again. This project worth a whopping Rs 46,000-crore has seen two Builder lobbies, the National Highway Builders Federation (NHBF) and the Construction Federation of India (CFI) take their complaints of alleged ‘favoritism’ directly to the P.M.’s office. This comes at a time when a section of farmers affected by the project are putting up stiff resistance to the project already. Many have dug their heals in and refused to part with the land needed for the expressway.

A leading daily has reported that two leading organisations in the construction industry have objected to the bidding process to award contracts to build the 701-km road corridor.

The NHBF and the CFI have complained to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s . office objecting to certain provisions in the request for qualification (RFQ) document for the project. They have alleged that these provisions were tailored to favour a handful of players, and sought the PMO’s intervention. Both outfits also approached the CMO too in this regard. In their representation, both the industry bodies have alleged that “there was an intentional and premeditated design to suppress competitiveness in the bidding process”.

The bone of contention is that when the MSRDC – nodal agency Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation – first published the RFQ for the projects on January 2, 2017, the contentious clauses for qualifying bidders were not a part of the document. 40 players submitted their expressions of interest. On March 29, 2017, the penultimate date for the bid, this RFQ was annulled and a fresh document was published, with the new clauses.

The ‘ new condition’ for qualification which is being objected to pertains to experience in building “access-controlled” expressways, freeways, motorways, and autobahns worth Rs 500 crore to Rs 1,300 crore in the last five years. Pointing out that only three “access-controlled” expressway projects — the Delhi-Agra expressway, the Agra-Lucknow expressway, and the Yamuna expressway — have been completed in the country in the past five years, the NBHF has alleged that the “restrictive” clause would allow qualification of only a handful of companies, leading to limited competition. “Highway contractors are competent enough to construct access-control highways since the latter contains only two additional components when compared to national highway projects, which is barrier fencing and signal-free interchanges,” complained P C Grover, Director, NBHF.

The CFI’s letter to the PMO shares that opinion. “We have reviewed the re-invited RFQ documents and have noticed some glaring provisions, which are normally not a part of the model engineering, procurement and construction document issued by NITI Aayog or norms used by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways or other agencies involved in the implementation of transportation infrastructure projects,” wrote Rajeev Sharma, Deputy Director, CFI, in the submission shared with the PMO and the CMO.

Who is responsible for ‘changed’ qualifications required?

When Fadnavis was contacted for his comment on the issue he expressed ignorance about it and said he would inquire and take action if necessary. “This has been done at the behest of officials working on the project” he surmised.

On the other hand, the bureaucrats involved claim they have received instructions from the ‘C.M.’s office! Official correspondence dated April 7, 2017 from MSRDC Vice-Chairman and Managing Director Radheshyam Mopalwar to Principal Secretary, Public Works Department, Ashish Kumar Singh indicates that the provisions, now contested, were incorporated in the RFQ on directives issued by the state government on March 10. Also, the minutes of a March 7 meeting convened by Fadnavis show that the bid document and submissions from interested parties were discussed at that meeting.

Only seven qualify in access controlled highways

Mopalwar’s letter to the government on April 7 also says there are 35 contractors who can work on highway projects in the country “but only seven are involved in construction of access controlled highways”. “The MSRDC is of the opinion that it would be appropriate to include those who have built four and six lane roads in the qualification criterion to enhance competitiveness of the bidding process,” said the letter. It adds that a large number of queries and objections were raised in this regard during a pre-bid conference on April 17.

In the event of a joint venture involving a foreign partner, the MSRDC, on May 16, also added one more qualifying clause — that the experience of a foreign partner of building access-controlled roads would be considered only if it was outside his country of origin. This clause has also been objected to by the industry bodies.

Financially ‘Sound’ Companies only wanted

One of the stipulated conditions of the revised RFQ was disqualification of those companies under corporate debt restructuring (CDR) or strategic debt restructuring (SDR).

Grover said: “ But the Centre has issued specific directives that companies under CDR/SDR should not be barred by central or state agencies from bidding. Yet, this clause has been introduced.” At least 14 highway builders and contractors figure on the list of those who would be disqualified by this clause.

While the MSRDC has now written to the state government for taking a further call on these conditions, Mopalwar said: “The conditions were incorporated to ring fence the government’s requirement to build the specialised expressway in a time-bound fashion.

It followed a review of technical and financial capabilities of those interested in bidding for the project. The government cannot afford delays on account of financial troubles of the contractors. Let us wait for the response the RFQ receives. We can always revisit a condition if the competition is found inadequate.” For now, the due date for the bidding has been extended to May 31.