As the rains continue to batter the city, it is easy to see that the infrastructure is of very poor quality. The potholes, the overflowing sewage, the flooding… these and many other observable things in the city remind us how shabby the quality of public works is. But this is only the apparent problem, the actual problem is deeper.
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Let’s ask ourselves : why are the roads so bad? And then follow the answers steadily deeper to the root of the problem. The roads are bad because there is no check on their quality during the construction phase, and no enforcement of maintenance obligations after they are built. So, that tells us that one part of the problem is that public administration of roads is bad.
Why is public administration bad? Can’t the elected councils and state governments hold them to account? Can they not set standards for better infrastructure? The answer to this too is obvious – they are also hand in glove with the problem.
The nexus between the contractors and elected representatives is very real. The latter ensure that roads are always built by incompetent contractors, so that new contracts can be awarded repeatedly. And the former ensure that kickbacks from the contracts are routinely handed back to the political class. If we want the roads to be better, we have to break this cycle.
But on this count, the voters are also to blame. We are happy to crib about bad politics, but not all that enthusiastic about an alternative. Or, at the very least, we would like alternatives to somehow emerge without our participation and efforts. That’s wishful thinking, just like good roads.
There are a few technical things that can be done to improve the infrastructure. One of the things I have been asking the government to do is establish a Bengaluru Street Design Standards Manual, that will establish a minimum standard for all public infrastructure, and make these designs part of every new contract that is awarded. Finally, there seems to be some movement on this, and the BBMP Commissioner recently expressed his willingness to take this step.
Another thing that would surely help is to have a proper city planning agency. The state government has so far refused to appoint a planning body for the city. Or, to put it more accurately, it has set up the planning body, but declined to appoint its members, or transfer the planning function from the failed BDA to this body. If things look totally unplanned around us, it is with good reason – they are unplanned, and that seems to be the plan !!
A third thing that can help even more is to put citizens in each ward in charge of overseeing local contracts. This will do wonders. People who have a very local interest in the quality of their neighbourhoods will certainly do more for its upkeep and development than anyone else. The political system resists this, because such citizens may also cut off the free flow of corruption. Which is the surest sign that it’s a good thing to do.
The rains will come and go. What we have seen, also, is that governments that promise to improve the infrastructure, clean up the city, and make Bengaluru ‘world-class’ also come and go. But, for the most part, they don’t have the technical competence to develop the city, the administrative diligence to accompany it, or the political will to actually serve the public. On that front, it has been raining for decades.