Anecdotes often express a phenomenon eloquently. On June 3, 2018, a road overbridge connecting Andheri East with Andheri West in Mumbai's suburbs collapsed. Three years later, there is a wide chasm spanning hope and despair. Beyond the barricades, there is little sign of activity and no visible deadline for completion. Accountability is diffused as the authority for completion is divorced between the municipal body and the railways.
This by no means is an uncommon occurrence. The road work for the Delhi-Meerut Expressway was completed but one rail overbridge awaited clearance from the railways. The result: the project was delayed by 11 months. Whether it is rural India or urban metros such as Mumbai, Pune, Chennai or Delhi, the state of infrastructure projects across the country symbolise the systemic chaos in governance that passes for order.
The sloth afflicting infrastructure costs crores and is an issue which was flagged by this column earlier (Infra Project Delays: Loss of Tax Payer Monies). As of June 2021, 559 of 1,779 mega projects were delayed and for 967 projects, the original/anticipated date of completion was unknown. The delays, up to 324 months, had added over Rs 4.6 lakh crore to the sanctioned cost.
This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a path-breaking multi-modal connectivity platform, PM Gati Shakti, which promises to address the competing commotion afflicting infrastructure projects - from "disjointed planning to non/under-utilisation of capacity to lack of standardisation to issues of clearances and approvals" et al. The aim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed, is to erase the "wide gap between macro planning and micro implementation and lack of coordination across departments".
Indeed, the concept note of the PM Gati Shakti programme chronicles some stunning instances of disorder. For instance, the fourth terminal of the Nhava Sheva port was completed in 2017 at the cost of Rs 5,000 crore. But even in 2021, less than half the installed capacity can be used because the connecting carriageway is yet to be completed. Elsewhere, in Krishnagiri district, only 30 per cent of earmarked SIPCOT industrial zone is used due to lack of road and rail connectivity.
PM Gati Shakti operates at twin levels. At the micro operations level, it brings 16 ministries and agencies under one umbrella which hopefully will nudge collaboration and coordination and to install a sense of order and predictability to the process. It aims to prioritise, optimise, synchronise projects across ministries and states. The programme is backed by data, geo-spatial information on land use, hydrology, elevation, etc. The programme will also be enabled by satellite imagery to track progress.
At a macro-economic level, the focus of PM Gati Shakti is to speed up the ambitious Rs 100 lakh crore infrastructure master plan announced by the PM in August. Effectively, the multi-agency, multi-mode platform can induct interventions as and when necessary to accelerate the development of key development projects such as the 11 major industrial corridors, ensure power and broadband connectivity, and provide hub-and-spoke links between corridors with highways and ports.
PM Gati Shakti, the prime minister remarked, heralds a departure from the "chalta hai, chalne do culture" which has haunted infrastructure creation and economic development. That this platform - which promises to improve ease of living and ease of doing business - has come together in India’s policy landscape punctuated by pitfalls is indeed a milestone.
Though laudable, the Gati Shakti platform by itself will not be enough to end the reign of time and cost overruns. Success demands installation of transparency and accountability - beginning with quarterly disclosures on cost and time deadlines on projects. For instance, aficionados of the bullet train would like to know where exactly the dream project stands and even what's in its way.
The government should induct tech to enable real-time tracking for intended beneficiaries to query the progress of any infrastructure project. And, a leaf could be taken from the success of the technology platform Saubhagya.gov.in which allowed benificiaries to validate or question government claims.
A similar tech initiative deploying Citizen Shakti could be inducted to improve oversight and outcomes. It could be called Netra/Aankhen/Chaksu. Imagine being able to click on a QR code or a bar code or any ID tag at a project site, for instance, in Baner or Bulandshahr and know the status of the project. On a second level, Netra could allow taxpayers to inform/complain by posting pictures if project is in limbo. Linking it to the mygov.in portal and app could complete the loop of accountability.
India's landscape - particularly, major metros and over 50 cities - is littered with testimonials of promises reduced to monuments of delays and erosion of tax paid resources. PM Gati Shakti can harness success in its aims by affording an opportunity to foster citizen centric governance by enabling transparency and accountability.
(The writer is author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India's 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India. He can be reached at email@example.com)