Sucheta Dalal :Analysing networks behind India's crumbling infrastructure
Sucheta Dalal

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Analysing networks behind India's crumbling infrastructure  

Apr 3, 2006

Some time ago, ICICI Bank’s CEO K.V. Kamath said that when economic growth accelerates, the process of rapid infrastructure development and urban regeneration also kicks-in; but it has not happened noticeably in India. The reason, according to me, is that the development process has turned into a zamindari for politicians, police and petty officials operating in such well-oiled cabals that they sideline every proposal that does not involve higher pay-offs to them, notwithstanding the public benefits involved.


Last week, Mumbai’s Police Traffic Commissioner told angry citizens in up-market Walkeshwar to pool money and buy space to create parking facilities for themselves. But what about all the hefty taxes that we pay to the municipal corporation? Isn’t it their job to reserve space for huge multi-storeyed parking towers in each precinct as is available in the developed world?


Instead, in the crowded commercial district of Nariman Point, a large, open parking space was give away to the Piramal Group to build a multi-storeyed parking lot with the carrot of a mall and multiplex cinema to subsidise it. Instead of improving things, what we have is badly designed and expensive parking that lies vacant with those who visit the cinema adding to the traffic chaos and congestion. While the people are left high and dry, the company running the mall recently raised a chunk of money through a premium priced IPO.


Look at another example. While ordinary residents are asked to invest in parking amenities, the same traffic police studiously ignores scores of complaints that road parking space on Mumbai’s clogged main arteries is entirely blocked by commercial establishments - travel agencies, car show rooms, used car showrooms, garages, auto service companies of multinational car companies and car-hire agencies park scores of cars each without paying a penny.


Shouldn’t the cost and space for parking be part of their business planning? And shouldn’t the municipal corporation permit these businesses only if they can prove the availability of parking space? None of these vehicles, or unionised taxis and truck operators are touched by police towing vans, because they pay generous bribes. These payoff are cheaper than investing in parking space.


Similarly, the explosion in air travel has meant a quantum increase in cars going to the major airports. Instead of building vertical parking towers to accommodate people, government agencies have immediately exploited the situation (at least at Mumbai and Delhi airports) throuh a usurious increase in parking charges. These extraordinary charges do not affect bureaucrats and policy makers because they sport the “Bharat Sarkar” legend on their vehicles and lay claim to the best and most conveniently accessible public spaces.


The problem of road congestion and crumbling infrastructure is easily traced to the systematic manner in which projects of public interest are killed by corrupt officials of the transport division, the municipal corporation and the state government.


An NGO in Mumbai plans to set up a modern fleet of air-conditioned taxis with computerised billing facilities, world-class communication and location equipment and differential pricing that will transform a segment of public transport. The promoter has been asked for a Rs two crore bribe which, if paid, will immediately render the project unviable and write its death warrant.


But barring the strong support of one IAS official, nobody is willing to root for the change. Think about it: a modern fleet of 5,000 (phase-I) taxis would render a large chunk of Mumbai’s 55,000 (only the official figure), rather decrepit black-and-yellow Fiat taxis redundant. Simultaneously, the end of long queues would kill the well oiled ‘hafta’ collection that sustains petty officials.


The augmentation of mass transport systems in Maharashtra is caught in another rut with officials determined to opt for expensive options. While serious consideration is given to everything from the terrifically expensive underground metro to an elevated road project, more viable and less disrupting alternatives such as the Skybus project are not even given a serious hearing. How much of this is influenced by the fact that even the minimal kickbacks are a percentage of costs?


Part of the problem is the Delhi Metro’s phenomenal success. A world-class transport system running under the chaotic traffic of Delhi is an enormous feel-good factor that has spawned yahoo discussion groups and fan clubs. But can we take a look at Delhi Metro’s viability before replicating it in other cities? Why does the success of this project have to turn into a barrier for considering other transport options, more suited to other cities?


As B. Rajaram, former chief of the Konkan Railway Corporation and inventor of the Skybus project has repeatedly said - every city needs a well planned transport solution that combines a mix of public transport systems. But the multiplicity of agencies, regulations and jurisdictions makes it impossible for such solutions to be conceived and executed.


Even the World Bank funded Mumbai Urban Transport Project - II is allowed to disrupt Mumbai’s arterial roads with no pressure to adopt the best and latest technology. MUTP does not even have the excuse that expensive construction machines are not available in the country. Yet, very often, there is absolutely no work done on several ripped-up roads for days at a stretch.


Maharashtra, to its (dis)credit has the distinction of rendering a perfectly planned Expressway (between Mumbai and Pune) unviable by tinkering with the project plan and then handing it over to a private company for maintenance. Nobody protested the changes, because very little information was in the public domain.


The project was funded by public money through bonds floated by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corp (MSRDC) and subscribed by large institutional investors. These investors also did not protest because the bonds are guaranteed by the state government. The general public is usually clueless about project economics until directly affected by tolls, levies and tariffs.


Industrialists remain silent because their companies are usually direct or indirect beneficiaries. And often enough it is left to stray protesters to take on the burden of asking tough questions or blocking the project through litigation. The end result is that infrastructure continues to crumble with no room for projects to move forward.


-- Sucheta Dalal