NITI Ayog, a Government of India institution that has replaced the Planning Commission for catalysing economic development, has as CEO, Amitabh Kant, a 1980 batch re-employed IAS officer, who made a sweeping statement at the Impact Conclave in New Delhi earlier this week (30 August 2017) and dubbed seven or eight States in eastern India responsible for holding back the nation.
Pointing to 200 districts in eastern India, Kant drew special attention to failure in terms of education, health and nutrition.
Kant even went ahead and castigated the eastern States by saying “We need to name and shame these states and districts. We must bring it out that these are the states which are holding India back”.
Reacting strongly to Kant’s utterances, a senior civil servant retorted by stating “what he has said at the Impact Conclave is very provocative and irresponsible. Such statements would give the eastern states the lever to demand secession”. He also threw a poser by asking: “Is NITI ayog made up of loose talkers”?
Kant’s statement, at its face-value, shows that he is either operating with blinkers on and lacks the total picture or he is playing some political card.
Question arises, do we need such officers who work with blinkers on and refuse to see the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and the crony capitalists and also refuse to admit that the cancer of corruption, black money, hawala and money laundering is eating into the vitals of this country.
One would like to tell Kant that the nation wants to know why there is such a huge drag in terms of so many national highway projects that have been delayed endlessly and how much is the bank exposure and how much of its has been turned into non-performing asset (NPA) and also why it has been turned into NPA. We have a scenario where the highway development in India has been stinted and delayed due to government of India’s intransigence, non-cooperation by State governments and the so-called Land Acquisition Act. As a result, the companies have been forced to turn into NPA.
Everyone in knowledgeable circles knows that if a contractor has to bag a highway project – say for instance a project of Rs. 100 crore – he has to pay 15 per cent upfront even before the tender is released. After that there will be a budget provision of Rs. 100 crore….so the contractor who bags the project has to earn back the Rs 15 crore paid upfront and also rake in a profit of additional Rs. 15 crore. Question arises, what will be the quality and status of a road or highway for which money is paid by the exchequer?
We have a scenario where every 100 meters or so, there is a dada patronised by the politicians, who is there to ask for a piece of the cake. He will not let the contractor or the company that bags a works contract carry out work until given a cut. Then there are also many corporators without scruples, who want a cut, then the corporator’s ward boy wants a cut. Then there are also some ministers who want a cut.
NHAI, according to insiders, is a per kilometer racket. They split the highway project into small units and give contracts for small patches. That’s why its a common experience to see a patch of good road or freshly built road for a few kilometres and then a pot-holed road and the sequence continues.
The modus operandi of many road contractors – once they bag a contract, which they are not capable of completing, both financially and expertise-wise, they have no option but to offload the project on some big company for a price, which is 5 to 6 per cent of the contract value. So the contractor gets a good return on expenses incurred on paying bribes to bag the contract. Thereafter the new entrant- the big company mobilises heavy machinery and borrows money from banks. Now the big hurdle – the local politician does not allow the big company to function. They would file a number of court cases and register a few FIRs and the end result is that work comes to a standstill while the meter for interest on bank loans would keep running. Consequently the bank steps in and takes over the project declaring it as NPA.
In this way highways become a casualty due to all kinds of rackets and also due to the complexities of the land acquisition Act.
Then we have the system of clientelism, which the politicians cutting across party lines have chiseled to perfection. It is followed so deceitfully by those who swear by and use democracy to gain power and do everything to remain riveted to it. The Communists who ruled West Bengal for a long time had mastered this form of politics but in recent years many other parties have demonstrated that they also excel in this game of clientelism where funds meant for welfare and development are allowed to get siphoned away and fill the pockets of party loyalists whose numbers keep increasing with time and the political parties draw maximum mileage from this expanding support base during elections.
The focus on the road sector is only to underscore a point. The idea is not to do a sector-wise postmortem – all at once, right here. But at the same time it becomes necessary to tell the NITI Ayog CEO, in response to his latest utterances, that he should try to come up to the expectations of the people of this vast nation. We cannot allow a few in the higher echelons of power to run the show with a myopic or stinted perspective. If we allow this, we would be helping the bureaucrats build a smokescreen to hide all that is actually dragging the nation and not allowing it to grow.
Lalit Shastri has been a journalist for more than three decades. He has headed the Madhya Pradesh Bureau for The Hindu and The Asian Age. Presently he is Editor-in-Chief Newsroom24x7.com