YUNGABURRA - The Collins English dictionary defines the word ‘maintain’ as the ‘to keep in proper or good condition’.
And, of course, it is a standard procedure for a successful business to always allocate funds in its budget for repair and maintenance.
Potholes must be filled before they become enormous craters; engine oil must be changed according to the manufacturer’s schedule; tyres must be replaced when worn out. And so a very long list goes on.
But in my 30 years in Papua New Guinea, the effective maintenance of government assets almost disappeared.
What funds were made available were largely squandered through corruption and poor management of maintenance programs.
Eventually, lacking regular maintenance, a complete rebuild, or even replacement, of an asset is required at huge expense. A situation readily avoided with regular maintenance.
In 1980 I was posted to the Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station located on the road to Goldie Barracks some 25 kilometres from Port Moresby.
At that time the Department of Works and Supply was responsible for construction and maintenance of all government infrastructure, and the department’s Plant and Transport Branch was responsible for the purchase and maintenance of the government fleet.
As part of my steep learning curve, I went to Boroko to meet with the key supervisors in the various sections responsible for maintaining Laloki’s fleet of tractors and vehicles as well as water supply, building construction and maintenance.
The roads at that time were usually well maintained, even though mostly unsealed, as a result of the annual budget allocations for routine patrol grading and re-gravelling.
The Department of Agriculture was allocated funding for road maintenance in all coffee, cocoa, rubber, and oil palm project areas, and funds were transferred to Works and Supply to carry this out.
In 1988 I could drive my Nissan Sunny from Lae to Goroka or to Madang in four hours. There was no need to have a four-wheel drive.
At Laloki we had a small team of handymen to do basic maintenance of tractors and equipment as well as housing and office maintenance.
The Central Province water supply supervisor inspected our water bore, pump and chlorinator every quarter and would bring a new drum of chlorine whenever required. All new construction was the responsibility of the Department of Works and Supply.
There were standard plans for classrooms, houses, hospital wards and other buildings so the cost of new construction was minimised.
The electricity commission was responsible for out-station power supplies and received budget allocations for the maintenance of power houses and water reticulation.
By 1980, the construction and maintenance of government physical assets was largely centralised in the Department of Works and Supply. Provinces had their own Works sections routinely maintaining assets.
Then in 1989, the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville was closed after guerrilla attacks its infrastructure.
This failure of a major resource devastated government revenue.
The first items to be cut were often maintenance budgets.
By the early 1990s, all departments were told they had to find their own funds to purchase and maintain vehicles. The effects were widespread.
Roads went largely unmaintained and the heavy plant used for routine road maintenance was not replaced at the end of its life. Funding to the electricity commission was withdrawn and maintenance ceased.
The Plant and Transport Branch’s previously well attended auctions of used government vehicles found bidder numbers scarce.
Buyers previously knew the vehicles they were bidding for had been well maintained. That confidence had quickly evaporated.
The Department of Works (Supply was stripped out in 1988) still exists but now relies on budget allocations from aid donors, provincial governments and district administrations for any maintenance it wants to do.
As a result, most maintenance is now limited to emergencies triggered by floods or landslides.
Aid donors that had originally provided funding for the construction of roads, bridges, schools, water supplies, sewerage and hospitals are now asked to rebuild them when they have deteriorated to such an extent that repair and maintenance was not possible.
The relatively small number of maintenance contracts has also stirred controversy, such as the cases of Kerevat National High School and the main government office complex in Waigani.
Contractors managed to make a lot of money for themselves. They have benefits far more than the assets supposedly maintained.
About 10 years ago, I first heard the statement, “we have 750 languages but there is word for maintenance”.
In fact, down the years since I’ve asked many Papua New Guineans whether there is a word for maintenance in their traditional language.
Usually a term for building something again, like wokim niupela, is suggested in Tok Pisin.
But I’ve found not a single tok ples word for maintenance. The Tok Pisin words stretim or mekim gut gen are probably the best equivalents in that language.
In PNG traditional society, building materials had a relatively short life and a new house had to be built every few years.
Could the reason why there is almost no maintenance of PNG government assets be that there is no word for ‘maintenance’ in that diverse nation’s traditional tongues?
But perhaps I’m wrong, maybe there is a tok ples word for maintenance.
If so, I would love to hear it.