Bureaucratic lethargy? Why Gadkari is both right and wrong

November 11, 2020 6:20 AM

The twist in the tale on the delays in the construction of the NHAI’s own new building

However, like everything in India, there is a twist in the tale, for while what he said was indeed correct, yet he was also not so.However, like everything in India, there is a twist in the tale, for while what he said was indeed correct, yet he was also not so.

By Srivatsa Krishna

India is the only country on the planet where we happily disagree on facts, not just on opinions; disagree on not just what the future will be, but also on what the past was! Nitin Gadkari’s humorous, incisive and pungent remarks on the delays in the construction of the NHAI’s own new building have got him eyeballs in the media. However, like everything in India, there is a twist in the tale, for while what he said was indeed correct, yet he was also not so.

Gadkari conveniently forgets that while the same NHAI which took 11 years to construct an eight-floor building for itself—indeed shocking and reprehensible—also took road construction from under 10-km to 30-km per day, in the not too distant past, which he himself has touted around! So, why this strange dichotomy and what explains decisions and indecisions in the system?

At the outset, let me unequivocally concede that the NHAI has had its share of outstanding and terrible chairmen. And having eight officers in a span of seven years neither helps continuity nor effectiveness. A couple of them, are sadly still secretaries to the government of India, are terrified of their own shadows to approve even a day’s casual leave application without setting up a committee to whet it—whereas both the incumbent chairman and the secretary, Road Transport, and a previous one from Haryana, are dynamic go-getters who got enormous work done during their relatively brief stints.

The IAS, following the Bell Curve, is the home to the good, the bad and the ugly. Under the leadership of an outstanding lady officer of the 1986 batch, Karnataka got 400 clearances across 17 unconnected central and state bureaucracies—the NHAI, Railways, Government of India (Forests and Environment), Railways and Karnataka—in record time, which enabled the Karnataka Gas Pipeline to sign an MoU in May 2010, start construction in November 2010, and Toyota, the first customer, bought gas on February 19, 2013! We also have many ‘saints’ (who are personally honest, but would also not exert themselves to do anything of consequence) and ‘criminals’ who can make every Mallya, Choksi and Kalmadi look like Mahatma Gandhi, with enough wealth to become a fund of funds for many private equity funds! So, we have all kinds, and often one kind is masquerading as the other, especially on the social media.

In the current case, the NHAI appears to have made some bad decisions and indecisions. First, it decided to construct the building itself, for which it had no experience—instead, it could have been given to the NBCC. The contractor went bankrupt, the scope was changed, and they went to arbitration. Let’s not forget that the NHAI has several contractors close to every major politician in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, whose primary vocation is to get more money through arbitration than through construction. Second, once it goes into arbitration, most ‘good’ officers play safe and don’t like to take risks to get the project going, lest it upsets their retirement planning.

Recently, in Chhattisgarh, in an IT project the strange converse happened. Notice was given, penalty levied and partly collected for non-completion of a project by two successive IAS officers. But then their successor waived the penalty and returned what was collected, in all his wisdom. He could have done this in the interest of project completion or for ‘other’ considerations or pressures.

If an IAS officer levies a penalty in India, it is almost guaranteed that it won’t get collected and will go into eternal arbitration which stalls the project. What should a good officer do? If he imposes a penalty for non-performance, he can be called vindictive, and if he doesn’t impose, he could be accused of nepotism—you must make the omelette without breaking the egg! So, even a well-meaning, decisive IAS officer who decides to waive penalties in return for guarantees of project completion will face criticism.

It is also not an unfair question to ask what did the political executive, upon seeing the building being stuck for 11 years, do to resolve matters? If it allowed inactions of certain chairmen and members of the NHAI, does it mean that the minister does not have the guts or the ability to monitor and overrule bad decisions by bad officers or indecisions by ‘saintly’ officers? In fact, one hears that, even in this case, the NHAI wanted to penalise the contractor, but wasn’t allowed to. Let us not forget that the same ministry, the NHAI, officials and contractors, using the same set of rules, under a phenomenally sagacious and honest minister BC Khanduri (along with Santosh Nautiyal, IAS), created the Golden Quadrilateral, a landmark in India’s history.

This has been a ‘good’ pandemic for policy, and India has come out with some world-class ones in agriculture, education and labour—which every commentator of every hue (with or without a mask to hide their current political hypocrisy) has been demanding for long, but implementation remains the key challenge. Why don’t the ‘saints’ in the IAS, for a change, be the change they profess to be on the social media? Why doesn’t the political executive, across political complexions, bring about drastic bureaucracy reforms? And not collude with the ‘criminals’ in the IAS and engage in rampant corruption on every tender, increase competition through more lateral recruitment coupled with fixed contractual tenures after the initial 15 years in the IAS, post the right officers (the tools) at the right positions at the right time, and take measured risks themselves, to enable IAS officers to follow the lead? That will be the final frontier to be conquered for a ‘new India’.

The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal
Twitter @srivatsakrishna

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