Tuesday, July 16, 2024

India’s woeful infrastructure demands urgent attention

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It’s time — in fact, it’s overdue — that we spoke about and fought against the great infrastructure rip-off taking place in India. It is the loot of the Indian exchequer that involves many people including the entire corrupt ecosystem of cronies.

These cronies are handed sweetheart deals with built-in super profits, officials who sanction projects and hand out tenders, and engineers who make shoddy bridges that collapse at regular intervals and showcase a corruption show.

For some reason, which I don’t even want to analyse (perhaps our colonial history), public projects and public infrastructure are seen as nobody’s child, ripe for abuse by the public and misused for corruption by the powers that be.

Consider this: In the state of Bihar, where public boasts of a lack of corruption, good governance dies spectacularly. In the last two weeks, ten bridges have collapsed in various districts in Bihar, belying Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister, who prides himself on the moniker “Sushasan Babu” (good administrator). Something is so rotten in the state of Bihar that the only people held accountable for these collapses are hapless engineers.

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Public expenditure leak

These infrastructure disasters aren’t only happening in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. They are a regular feature in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and India’s capital, Delhi, where roofs of swanky airports built at huge public expenditure leak like sieves.

A viral picture of a decapitated man sitting in his car at the Delhi international airport, where the roof collapsed on his car, drew nothing but a shrug from Indians long inured to shoddy infrastructure and a cynical do-nothing response from the authorities in charge.

Because I repeatedly flag India’s great infrastructure rip-off in my SWAT analysis in Gulf News, figuring it is of urgent international interest, a leader who is part of the decision-making in Delhi, where the airport roof killed the hapless man, called me and said, “I know you will write about this, and I can also tell you nothing will change. Indians don’t care about public infrastructure. We only obsess over politics. Do people even read your infrastructure columns as much as your viral political exclusives?”

Read more by Swati Chaturvedi

Lack of maintenance

So why is the situation so awful? Experts I spoke to for this SWAT analysis told me two reasons. The first is that the construction of public projects is so terrible that even the first drizzle of the monsoon would blow it away or cause a collapse (remember the Morbi bridge collapse in Gujarat). The second is the near-total lack of maintenance of public projects, coupled with poor, outdated design, which showcases our shoddy governance.

India is still building narrow highways with three lanes when the projection calls for 15-lane highways. Many Metros are built with no thought of user connectivity in stations, and the state of the railways is a testimony to the near-total anarchy that rules the public square.

Hundreds of people die in religious stampedes for which the authorities make inadequate arrangements, or in bridge collapses after billionaire godmen damage riverbeds at will and thumb their noses at environmental authorities and fines. We have ruined our mountains, creating rival mountains of garbage and building indiscriminately in ecologically sensitive hill states where corrupt authorities have turned a blind eye.

As India races to create infrastructure, it has become the latest cash cow, awarding huge billion-dollar contracts to cronies. The only ones totally ill-served are the public. But do we care? It’s time we did, as we currently live with bad air, worst pollution, and poor infrastructure.

India, the beautiful country of ours, deserves better.

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