Rats, crabs, potholes and wasted taxes

The quantum of public monies wasted and the apathy that envelops it is simply stunning.

Published: 08th September 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2019 10:20 AM   |  A+A-

The quantum of public monies wasted and the apathy that envelops it is simply stunning.
Every few years the law of averages catches up with the India Story. The paramount concern in a resource-scarce economy should be about efficiency, of how scarce resources are used effectively. But efficiency, the idea and the word, are conspicuously missing from the narrative. For an economy which has struggled with scarcity for seven decades it is baffling why criminal wastage of scarce resources persists.   

On August 28, Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das inaugurated a canal of the Konar river irrigation project. The canal had been proposed 42 years back. The original cost in 1977 was Rs 12 crore. The final cost in 2019: Rs 2,176 crore. And then, barely 22 hours after the inauguration the canal collapsed—fields and 35 villages in its path were flooded and crops destroyed. The official cause of the collapse of the canal: rat holes in the embankment of the canal, which was not cemented.

On July 2, the Tiware dam near Chiplun in Maharashtra, operational since 2004, collapsed, flooding nearby villages and claiming 18 lives. The minister for water conservation in the Maharashtra government attributed the collapse of the dam to a large number of crabs, which caused leakage and the collapse. In September last year, a breach in the wall of the Mutha canal in Pune led to large-scale flooding and destruction. Another minister then had explained that rats and crabs had gnawed at the foundation of the wall, causing the breach and flooding. 

Some nine years ago, the BSP regime in Uttar Pradesh had cleared a bridge over Kho River near Bijnor. The bridge was 90 per cent complete –stalled because a farmer went to court for better compensation. Fed up with delays, the villagers began using it. On August 11, following torrential rains, a section of the bridge caved in into the river.  Neither rodents nor crabs have been blamed as yet. 

Earlier this month, actor Poornachandra Mysore dressed up in a space suit and walked—or rather ‘moonwalked’—through the crater-like potholes in a video designed by Baadal Nanjundaswamy on Bengaluru’s roads. The video struck a chord with residents of India’s major metros, particularly those in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai who must drive through the lunar-like landscape of the twin cities every year. 

Potholes represent a kind of perverse Keynesian phenomenon—an annual stimulus package which appears on the budgets of governments and municipal corporations. The economics of potholes merits attention. This year, the municipal corporation of Mumbai even had an app for citizens to send pictures and locations of potholes. Apparently 1,070 potholes were reported in just two days. In a RTI response the corporation has revealed that it has repaired over 8,500 potholes in two years—and the cost as per activist Shakeel Ahmed is Rs 17,000 per pothole. Size, dimension, effect on costs is unknown, as is the why—and this is just one city. 

Wastage of taxpayer monies is validated by data on small and large projects. Last month, the government released data on large projects undertaken by the government. On Saturday, the government created a task force to draft the roadmap for the Rs 100 lakh crore infra plan. The task force must consult the report on delayed projects released by the government recently. Around 446 ‘mega projects’ costing over Rs 1,000 crore, and 977 major projects costing Rs 150 crore or more will cost over Rs 3.3 lakh crore more than it was first estimated. 

The reasons for cost escalation are forest and environment clearances, tree cutting permission, industrial licence permission, grant of way, land acquisition, removal of encroachments, law and order issues and so on. Essentially, 19 different clearances vested with the central and state governments—all of which fall under the matrix of ease of doing business. Imagine a government project stalled for want of power and water connections!

There is cost escalation and then there is the cost of lost opportunity for growth and development due to the delays. The delays range from one month to 324 months. There are projects which should have been commissioned when P V Narasimha Rao was prime minister. It is not just the big tag infra projects, even those under health and family welfare are running 83 months behind schedule. 

What is most baffling is the sloth surrounding corrective action. The report on mega projects, for instance, is rich in general statements but poor about particulars. Has the cause of delays been fixed? And how much money exactly is stuck in these 1,400-plus projects? Similarly, who, for instance, could be held responsible for the collapse of the canal in Jharkhand or the dam in Maharashtra? What would be the cost of repair and reconstruction? For sure The municipal corporation of Mumbai has inducted ‘cold mix’ technology to fill potholes, but what about prevention of recurrence? 

There is an eerie sense of déja vu which shrouds the tragedies of governance—it is as if the blue book of development has scarcely evolved since the colonial era. Despite the spectre of failures, governments have conveniently avoided two words: administrative reforms. To expect growth without systemic efficiency is to live in delusive denial.
shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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