Sunday, October 15, 2017

A little bump in the road

One of my favourite travel stories is from a reporting assignment in rural Rajasthan. For trips into rural areas, I'd usually have to hire a large vehicle like a Sumo or some other kind of jeep since there were either bad roads or no roads at all. Then there would be some areas where we'd have to abandon the jeep and walk.

On this particular trip, we were on no-road terrain. Yet there was a sign planted firmly on the ground. “Speed breaker ahead.”

I noticed and laughed at the irony. How could there be a speed breaker if there was no road? But I was wrong. Sure enough, there was a speed breaker. A mighty one too. It seemed at least a foot high and was solid concrete. The contractor tasked with making that road may have had a twinge of conscience, or else, he was given to dark humour. He certainly did put some of the money where it belonged – in concrete.

If there's one thing that almost everyone agrees upon, it is that there's money in contruction. Well, contractors and builders might disagree, perhaps with good reason. There may not be as much money in it for them as it appears on paper because there are several payments to make, not all of them legal. Even so, modern living requires a whole lot of concrete, tar and steel.

Examine budgets for our 'public' projects and you will likely see that the lion's share is given to construction. Huge stadia and sports complexes, flyovers and metro stations, airports and promenades and roads of course. There are offices and guest houses and toilets too. Throw in the odd school, college or hospital. All of this infrastructure is necessary, of course. We need railway stations and roads and schools, so we rarely question the expense. Trouble is, we also don't look very closely at how much is spent on actual construction, and how often the work needs repairs.

In recent months, there has been a lot of heartburn about road repair complaints, especially about potholes. Bad roads are inconvenient to say the least; they are also a health hazard. The risk of injuries to the neck and back are real but cannot easily be proved to have been caused or exacerbated on account of a rough ride. Instead of focussing on good, long lasting construction, or even examining the reasons why roads have been crumbling so easily in recent years, political outfits have responded with aggression. Then the aggression and the resultant outrage dies down, and it's back to business. There are no assurances that things will be any different next month, or next monsoon.

It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to build lasting structures. But it is only possible if we have good information.

Society is not made of concrete, but units of information. Building things, making complaints, making laws, seeking justice – all of these processes rest on information. This is also why information is either witheld or given out very reluctantly. And this is precisely why citizens must keep demanding it.

Ideally, accounts of city and state – all expenses paid out of taxpayers' pockets – ought to be uploaded online as well as easily accessed in print at the local municipal and state government office. We ought to be able to see maps, who built – or didn't build – a road, what they bid, how they split cost and profit, also which official inspected the work and gave it the final thumbs up. This information sits in files like a caged animal. There is no good reason why it should not be set free to serve as a public watchdog.


First published in The Hindu
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