Chennai probably has more money than it ever did for public projects. Our Corporation’s budget is bigger than ever and as for infrastructure, there is a lot of money being poured into it, thanks to special purpose vehicles and funds from schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Why then does the city rather ironically have less infrastructure than before – poor roads, non-existent pavements, endless traffic jams and, above all, a dysfunctional public transport system that makes commuting the most painful experience?
The Economist, one of the most respected international journals, recently conducted a study of several Latin American capitals, all of which are facing problems similar to ours. And like Chennai, they too have an abundance of funding. It came to the conclusion that the principal causes are two – “the shortage of people in the public sector with the training and experience to design, evaluate and supervise complex engineering projects” and “well-intentioned but labyrinthine procedures designed to eliminate corruption in procurement… which often end up causing delays instead.” Both these statements hold good for Chennai. The tragedy is that very little is being done to correct the situation. And, what is worse, very little can be done in the short term, for these are problems that need a long-term vision and political will to resolve.
The second of the two problems is a well-known fact and does not merit elaboration. The first, however, is the deeper malaise and the sooner it is recognised as such, the better. We have had infrastructure projects executed in our city with more emphasis on immediate solutions rather than long term impact. Take a look at some of our flyovers and you need go no further. Whole areas beneath them have become uninhabitable, serving more as cesspits and refuse dumps. The traffic has moved on (or has it?), but the debris and the garbage have remained. The MRTS is a story by itself. Ill-connected with other transport systems, it is underutilised and, worse, has destroyed what was once a navigable waterway – the Buckingham Canal. The elevated road from the Port to Maduravoyal now threatens to do the same to the Cooum. All this points to just one thing – someone higher up, invariably after a jaunt abroad, takes a fancy to a particular project or solution and a team below simply executes it in a bumbling manner, with delays and no thought aforehand of its impact.
It is not as though the statutory bodies – the Corporation and CMDA being but two – lack the necessary posts and the incumbents for them. But as to their competence to handle such tasks, that is another matter altogether. The recruitment process, the training given and, most importantly, the freedom given to think and work for themselves are all flawed. It is fairly certain that none in our town planning and infrastructure project departments has any long-term vision on how their work will impact the future generations in the city. To overcome the weaknesses in the system, the Government has on occasion opted to form committees to which outside experts are drafted. But these too are invariably from Government-backed institutions and agencies, resulting in a uniform way of thinking.
When there are private organisations involved, they are selected on the basis of the most opaque considerations. And these have mostly meant the Government agency completely handing over all its responsibilities to the private agency. It is, however, the Government that has a social angle to its portfolio and not the private contractor. It is, therefore, necessary that the State agencies remain accountable and alert as to how a proposed solution impacts society at large.
All this calls for an atmosphere of debate, dialogue and discussion in Government circles between the elected representatives and the bureaucracy. The latter needs to keep itself abreast of the latest developments the world over in areas that concern it. It is highly doubtful if officialdom in its present state is anywhere near such preparedness.