By Eng. T.L.R. Thilak Silva BSc Eng (Hons), MEng, MICE, MIE(SL), CEng, PMP
In a real sense, all the stakeholders who were engaged in the construction industry have been facing a difficult time since the presidential election of 8 January. Thousands of people who were involved directly or indirectly with the construction projects have started facing problems due to certain ongoing projects being temporarily suspended or very few new projects being started since January 2015.
Among the people who were involved in the construction industry and who supported the 8 January revolution many are now wondering what really happened to them. Before 8 January, technical personnel including those who were passing out from higher technical diploma awarding institutions were in great demand. Employers were competing to secure a higher number of placements of technical diploma holders who were nearing completion of their diplomas.
The construction industry was facing an apparent short supply of personnel of technical category for their projects before January 2015, but today such higher diploma awarding institutions are finding difficulty to get placements for industrial training for their students. The construction industry has lost momentum to such a level that people concerned have started worrying.
With the voting patterns of the recently-concluded general election of August 2015, it is evident that in spite of the hardships they have started facing after 8 January, they still wanted a change and wanted to change the corrupt system which prevailed in the country before 8 January.
Now it is the right time for the present leadership to act fast and revive the construction industry
It has also been noticed in couple of instances that certain foreign investors, who were willing to participate with mega investments jointly with the local companies and waited to see the outcome of the 17 August general election, have now backed out due to the uncertainties they have anticipated with the newly-formed National Government.
I have heard from some people who had voted for the new Government that the country will be elevated by an inch at the end of the five-year term of the new Government. That is not a very good impression of the people who elected a new government. Among the people who are complaining, there are two factions. One set of people are those who were benefited by the corrupt system of the previous Government and the others are the common people who have been affected by the actions of the new Government. If the Prime Minister wants to genuinely fulfill his promises given to people before the elections, then a lot needs to be changed and people should feel the changes without it being too long.
Reviving the construction industry
Now it is the right time for the present leadership to act fast and remedy the situation. In the process of reviving the construction industry to a higher level than it had been before 8 January, the author wishes to make the following suggestions:
1. Appointing efficient and effective people for the institutions that play a major role in the construction industry
We have not seen much changes in the faces in the new appointees for such institutions. The same old crowd who call themselves ‘industry experts’ and the mafia, who were controlling and manipulating the industry for their benefits are still seen in every major event of the construction industry.
This gives the impression that we cannot expect a big change unless the system is totally reassessed and new measures are taken to revamp these institutions by the ministers who are responsible for the development of the construction industry. Such institutions are CIDA, VTA, NAITA, UNIVOTEC, NHDA, SEC, SD&CC, CECB, CEB, etc.
During such appointments, the new Government should bring in new people who are honest and creative in finding solutions for the current problems and meeting new challenges. Rotating the same set of people over and over again will not bring in new thinking or the changes that were promised by the Prime Minister before the elections.
2. Increased interactive communication with the people and industry stakeholders (listen to people)
It is always good to get feedback from the general public and industry experts on matters related to the industry. Although advanced and easy communication tools such as the internet were not available at the time of President Premadasa, any citizen of the country had the opportunity to write to him to vent any grievance or to make a suggestion for improvement. Such communications were acknowledged and acted upon. It is too disappointing that today nobody in the ministries including the Prime Minister’s office seems concerned about encouraging a communication link with general public.
For example, if you send a letter to the email address of the Prime Minister, you will neither get an acknowledgement nor you will get a communication regarding what actions have been taken. When you go to the web page of the Ministry of Housing and Samurdhi, you find that there are no contact details to communicate with them. This shows their indifference towards the people who have seated them in their current elevated positions.
So it is hoped that this matter will be taken serious by all the ministries including the Prime Minister’s office. Getting feedback and sharing ideas with the people and industry experts are very positive ways to show people that the politicians and bureaucrats are serious about meeting expectations of the people.
3. Show the world that a Unity Government is a practically workable solution and can survive the next five years
It is very important to win back investor confidence. Everything will depend on how fast the new Government will kick-start activities to begin the processes which will positively be felt by the people and the outside world. They should feel confident that two major parties can work together and can survive for the next five years.
The CEO of a global company which is present in Sri Lanka asked whether investors will have trust in a government which will survive only two years as per the initial announcements by the Prime Minister. He asked what will happen after two years.
4. Take immediate actions to recommence Government projects which were put on hold
Rather than spending a lot of time investigating the anomalies which may have taken place during the previous regime, the highest priority should be given to recommence the Government projects which were put on hold after the 8 January elections. A lot of people who worked in those projects have lost their jobs. While people expect the present Government to expose the culprits and punish them under law, higher priority should be given to revive the situation back to normal.
People are complaining that nothing much has happened during the seven-month period after the January elections. The pace of development set in motion by the previous Government needs to be reestablished.
5. Port City Project
Re-consider the impact of the Port City Project on the environment, natural resources, geopolitical stability and, threat to sovereignty and national security. Having studied all concerned factors, the project may be given the go ahead to recommence under a limited scope in order to mitigate the adverse impacts and long-term risks.
6. Find solutions to the issues and challenges of the construction industry
If the country is to undergo a construction boom, there are several burning issues that should be addressed and long-term solutions should be planned.
(a) Shortage of technical staff: The number of people passing out with higher national diplomas and national certificate level courses will not be adequate to meet the demand for technical personnel. Presently we get people at the level of engineering assistant through NDT, NDES and HNDE courses conducted by three Government institutions. Students passing out from these three courses do a great contribution to the work supervision and operational management of construction sites. Construction companies need these people in large numbers.
One senior lecturer of the Institute of Engineering Technology, Katunayake, who has been in the service for the last 30 years, has mentioned to the author that Government financial allocations are becoming less and it is becoming difficult to manage these higher educational institutions. Salary structure for the lecturers and instructors does not attract qualified young engineers to fill up the positions which will soon become vacant when several senior lecturers are in line for their retirement. Such problems need to be provided with immediate solutions.
It is also necessary to increase the intake of students to these three higher diploma awarding institutions to supplement the anticipated increase in demand for technical personnel to support the construction boom that has been promised by the present Government.
(b) Shortage of skilled manpower: The construction industry trades such as masons, carpenters, bar benders, tillers, welders, electricians, steel fabricators, skilled trades for aluminum door/windows, ceilings, cladding systems, road pavers, machine operators, crane operators, etc. are in short supply. This has prompted several Chinese and Indian construction companies to bring in skilled workers from their own countries. Such migrant workers can create long-term issues and will increase the cost of construction in Sri Lanka. It is important that the Government takes necessary action to attract youth completing GCE (OL) and those who drop out from schools before GCE (OL) to join vocational training institutes to get trained for the above trades. Awareness campaigns need to be launched at school levels to make students aware of the earning capacities and demand for these trades. Today, in some instances, skilled workers earn a higher wage than the people who supervise and manage them. For example a tiller earns a daily wage of Rs. 2,000 whereas a storekeeper or an accounts clerk earns a monthly wage of Rs. 35,000. It is obvious who earns more.
(c) Shortage of construction materials: As it has been discussed over the last several years, increasing prices and short supply of river sand have hampered large construction projects and have increased cost of construction. The Government should give incentives to local or foreign companies to invest in dredging of offshore sea sand and invest in washing plants having adequate capacities to supplement the sand supply to the construction industry. Alternatives such as manufactured sand should also be promoted. Although dredging licenses had been issued by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau several years back, no company has so far ventured out to supply washed sea sand to the market, may be due to various obstacles and lack of support from the Government. The Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation sells sea sand which has been stockpiled for a period of time to undergo elimination of salt through the natural process of getting washed by the rains. However engineers still have doubts about recommending sea sand washed by rains due to uncertainties in the level of salt elimination through natural means. Sea sand processing through mechanical means will satisfy quality requirements to suit for the large projects.
The author seeks the attention and intervention of the Prime Minister, Minster of Housing and Development, Minster of Technology, Technology Education and Employment, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development, Minister of Highways and Minister of Urban Development and Water Supply.