In Guyana, we are accustomed to large programmes taking almost forever. The Cheddi Jagan International Airport project is just one. That programme began almost eight years ago and to this day it is still to be completed.
For starters, the contractor took some time to mobilise. Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo later explained that it was a fixed cost contract so the contractor had to finish it even if he had to go into his pocket.
Indeed, there is always the recourse to the courts, but this is sometimes fraught with the risk of the government having to complete the project, as was the case of the Skeldon Sugar factory. Mr. Jagdeo did say that the government went to court but lost the case to collect punitive damage.
In the case of the Cheddi Jagan airport project, the contractor is claiming that he is out of money, but the government says that the problem is the contractor’s. That is why there was anger when the air bridges were taken down because of structural problems.
I am on vacation in New Jersey. Every year, I take a break from daily life to recuperate. After all, I am not a spring chicken. Of course, I am as active as I ever was, but something at the back of my mind keeps telling me that I need to slow down.
While on vacation, I could not help but marvel at what passes for construction. For example, there is the Goethals Bridge that links Staten Island to New Jersey. Two years ago construction began on another bridge adjoining the old bridge.
This year that bridge was open to traffic with every feature in place. It is just over 300 metres longer than the Demerara Harbour Bridge, but the kind of construction that belittles the local bridge. It is high to allow for the passage of large ocean-going vessels; it is supported by large steel cables the likes of which are unknown to Guyanese.
The contractor was given a time frame to complete the project and he came in within the time frame. He knew the penalty that would have landed on him. Besides, he always has an eye on other constructions.
This weekend, the authorities in New York are installing an escalator in a subway station. This is being done in Manhattan. The project began Saturday night and would be completed by Monday morning for the rush hour traffic.
I can imagine the mass of material that would have to be removed and the work that needs to be done. However, the contractor is up to the task. The equipment is in place and the work ethic is phenomenal. When people go to work, they work. No one wants to be fired, because the recommendation for future jobs means a lot.
A little over a decade ago, when preparations were underway for the Marriott, there was a contract to re-route the sewer. That contract went to Courtney Benn. The materials were procured and work actually began when Jagdeo, then the president, caused the contract to be revoked.
At a press conference later, he said that Guyana had lost all its skilled people. He was right, because since then contracts have been substandard. Road surfaces deteriorate not long after construction. In recent times, the best road surface in Guyana is the West Demerara roadway that reaches to Parika. Jamaicans played a huge part in that programme.
One of the things that we do not insist on is skills transfer. Foreign contractors come with all their top brass. Guyanese never get a chance to learn the most up to date skills. I still remember the nonsense that occurred when Guyanese were denied the opportunity to work on the Marriott during the construction phase.
Indeed that hotel towers over the city. It was constructed in what could pass as record time in Guyana. Sadly, no skilled Guyanese got a chance to work with the leaders on that project. We would have been able to learn crucial skills in that area.
It is the same with the Cheddi Jagan airport project. We do have engineers there, but their role in the leadership is wanting. Some of them only became involved when the project foundered.
Just this past week, the Georgetown Chamber lamented the inability of Guyana to secure major contracts with the oil companies. Our engineers are not trained to the standards required by international companies, simply because the programme is not what is required in this day and age.
Local companies do not buy or cannot buy the sophisticated equipment. For one it is too costly and secondly, we do not have people to operate them to the maximum.
We talk of rich Guyanese but there is rich, by Guyanese standard, and there is rich according to international standard. Perhaps the rich in Guyana should consider forming consortiums. With oil the sky is the limit.
I still see what happened when Makeshwar ‘Fip’ Motilall secured the contract to build the road to the Amaila Falls. He bought used equipment and transported them to Guyana in secrecy. In the end, most of the equipment broke down and the very jungle became their graveyard. In the developed world the equipment is not substandard.
In Guyana, we work from sunrise to sundown on large projects. Others work around the clock. The contractor prefers to pay multiple shifts, and in the end his profit is larger than if he had one shift.
I see locations being closed for roadwork that lasts no more than perhaps twelve hours. These surfaces withstand the test of time and the elements.
There are Guyanese who signal an intention to come home and contribute, but who are told that we cannot pay them. We can pay them, because in the end that money that we cannot pay goes to rehabilitate the work that was done, albeit cheaply.
The Soesdyke/Linden Highway was completed in 1968 after two years of construction. It withstood the test of time and lasted well beyond the twenty years it was intended to last. No other roadway was so constructed. There was skills transfer, but those people left with the British construction company.
The Chinese do not take with them the Guyanese who work on the project, because no Guyanese was ever placed in a position to be of consequence to the contractor. Will this situation continue with the oil companies?
We should do what Singapore did when it leapt from Third World to first. Insist on its people being placed in top positions and trained.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
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