Programming for change

Updated: Aug 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
The latest status report on central sector projects from the ministry of programme implementation underlines many familiar points. Chief amongst these is what sceptics had said when it was created in the 1980s by the then Prime Minister, himself new to governance and its processes. The perennial lags in decision-making, in implementing these and in acting on feedback, went the unwelcome advice, wasnt due to lack of knowledge of the problems scale and details. Having one more agency to report on the matter and to seek explanations would change little by itself, the problem being embedded in the Indian states structure of administration and accountability. A decade after, heres what the IX Plan document had to say: Time and cost overruns (are) widespread and substantial in public sector infrastructure and investment area of priority of the Plan is to..ensure avoidable time and cost overruns are reduced, if not eliminated...procedural and institutional reforms would be required.... There was a lot of analysis and recommendation, none of it new.

Another decade gone by and todays programme implementation eagles tell us that of the 273 projects due for completion by March 2006, 182 havent been; that of the 742 projects reviewed, the cost overrun in 269 at the period of review had reached Rs 304 billion, that the completion dates for 219 of these are not available or not fixed even now. The length of the delays even after ground work begins can vary amazingly in even key infrastructure ministries: up to 14 years for railways, 16 years for power and 21 years for coal. The ministry says if it wasnt there, things would be much worse, citing statistics to buttress the claim, such as a 45% reduction in cost overruns since 1991. But for a problem thats allegedly been high priority in redressal for two decadesthe ministry prepares monthly flash reports for big projects and for the Prime Ministers Office a quarterly special report, besides a six-monthly exception report on action required does it look like it has come under control

The pity is that the Sonia-Manmohan government, supported by so many idealists from the Left, has reformed so little in the structure of governance. Its one substantial advance, a meaningful Right to Information Act, is now having to be protected from its creators. And this in an area overflowing with data on what to do: a web search engine on India-infrastructure-projects-delays throws up 1.25 million articles. How many more reports do we need