Bharat Nirman has lofty goals, and public infrastructure in rural areas is, of course, a noble cause. Under the Bharat Nirman project the UPA government will spend Rs 174,000 crore over the next four years for roads, irrigation, telcom, housing, drinking water and electrification for rural India. Since private money is not forthcoming for infrastructure projects in rural areas, there is no option, but for the government to spend. But will the Bharat Nirman Project be able to improve rural India's bijli, pani and sadak?
The UPA is hoping to replicate the success of the NDA's flagship scheme of building national highways. The first question to ask is would the NHDP (National Highway Development Project) have happened if the NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) had not been created and existed solely and exclusively to implement the NHDP? Maybe, but it would, most probably, have taken much longer, it would have been costlier in the process, and the end-product might have been inferior.
In contrast to the NHDP, the implementation of Bharat Nirman will be spread across hundreds of government departments across the country. The track record of state public works departments suggests that there is reason to worry. Projects could get delayed, the quality could be substandard, and yet, no one will be held accountable.
Morevoer, the NHAI was not only a dedicated arm of the government, created to complete a defined activity in a defined period of time, it also created new mechanisms and designs for implementation of the programme. Road design documents for each strech of 100 to 200 kms were created with the help of international consultants to help ensure quality, as well as prevent political interference. At later stages of the work, monitoring was done not just by the NHAI staff, but also by these consultants. The result that is being seen is not merely the consequence of spending big money on roads. It is the result of the institutional innovations that were made.
Second, is it not enough to build roads without creating the institutional framework that will ensure that the roads will be maintained. Government departments have constructed roads for 50 years. The poor maintainence of these roads is in sharp contrast to the maintainence of the NHDP roads.
The question of institutional changes arises equally for the other programmes being proposed. If spending money to lay pipes was the answer to India's woes of inadequate drinking water, India would have had at least good urban drinking water supply. However, this is not the case. The problem is not the money, but the institutional framework that offers no incentives for maintaining the pipes, ensuring that the pipes don't leak, and that it does not mix with sewage. Rural India does not have the economies of scale required to run drinking water plants in each village. Moreover, it does not have the technical expertise and engineering capacity locally available to maintain such systems even if they are put in place.
What is needed is not more money for laying pipes. It has been done for decades, and yet, in most of the country, for most of the time, most pipes run dry. What is needed, instead, are systems which work. So, for example, in the case of water, it has been proposed that the government should first focus on creating well functioning urban drinking water system, where there are both economies of scale and the technical expertise. Once this is done, the water board of each town should be made in charge of the drinking water supply to the surrounding rural areas. This could be one solution, there could be many others, differing from district to district. We do not know what will work. But we do know what will not work.
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