Sucheta Dalal :Infrastructure issues and the information gap
Sucheta Dalal

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Infrastructure issues and the information gap  



April 4, 2002

When India's most famous singing sisters -
Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle - decided to join the fight against a viaduct over Pedder Road (in Mumbai) they would never have imagined that almost all of Mumbai would turn against them.

The people considered their claim that the flyover would increase pollution and affect their singing voices, elitist and selfish.

Asha Bhonsle's comment to a leading daily that she would migrate to Dubai if the flyover were constructed was probably the last straw. It rallied the entire city in support of the flyover and gave politicians just the break they needed to get publicity by issuing pious statements to the media.

But public anger at Asha's threat (she has since withdrawn the statements and apologised for her off-the-cuff remarks) has a background that has nothing to do with the immensely popular singer.

Ironically enough, it has to do with the stellar performance of a former BJP minister Nitin Gadkari and R C Sinha, the Managing Director of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, which changed public opinion about flyovers.

The duo built 40-odd flyovers in record time with minimum dislocation of traffic and new technology. They also constructed the fabulous Mumbai-Pune Expressway, which is arguably on par with the best in the world in terms of design, construction, completion time and costs. The people's reaction has also to do with the litigation filed by the Bombay Environmental Action Group against a flyover by Jog Construction with a huge shopping mall underneath. This led to stoppage of construction work and caused immense hardship to people.

Although the controversy has permanently damaged the reputation of Jog Construction (a company that is seen to have bagged the project through its political connections), it also turned people against the NGO activists who had filed the public interest litigation.

Long distance commuters and international travellers suffered silently for well over a year and then revolted. They were so fed up with the increased pollution, bad roads, construction debris, prolonged commuting time and the long stoppage of work, that they actually told the court that the NGOs did not represent their interest.

The shift in public opinion was also because of the fact that other flyovers in congested and polluted areas such as Sion had proved to be a big boon to commuters. In the end, Jog was not only paid construction costs by government, but he was also permitted to build a truncated mall under the flyover.

This has swung public opinion in favour of a flyover at Pedder Road. Ordinary Mumbaikars recognise that development, in a fund-strapped and hugely populated country like India, is about finding the most feasible solution to a problem, even if it is not necessarily the best one.

In this context, I should point out that NGOs correctly argue that mass transportation is the answer to traffic congestion, not flyovers. Yet, they did nothing to support the 10-year-old Limouzine project, which had attempted to introduce segmented public transport through air-conditioned buses in Mumbai.

The expensive service became unviable and was shut down because the government insisted on it running as a point-to-point service and not allowed to make short runs or pick up passengers at bus stops.

Yet, it is this service which would have reduced the number of passenger cars and taxis on Indian roads and decongested regular train and bus services.

Although flyovers may not be the ideal solution to the city's problems they were easier to build because they are not funded out of the State exchequer (they are funded by a toll and a cess on automobile fuel) and have actually smoothened traffic flow in Mumbai.

Similarly, everybody had sniggered when MSRDC first claimed it would halve travel time from Mumbai to Pune; but it made good the promise, that too at half the cost of an earlier private sector bid.

The Expressway too was attacked by BEAG, which had claimed that it threatened the habitat of a mouse deer residing in the Western Ghats. But for some deft manoeuvring by R C Sinha that project too would have been bogged down by endless litigation.

Does the public response to Pedder Road imply a serious change in the attitude to infrastructure projects? Not necessarily. In the absence of informed debate about projects, concerns about corruption environmental damage, compensation, displacement and rehabilitation will remain.

Distrust about big business and government is so high, that it has killed several good projects in the country. There is an urgent need to balance environmental and social concerns with development, but this can only happen if there is informed debate and discussion.

The problem is that the government and its bureaucrats are distrustful of debate. They believe that it only provides ammunition to NGOs to block projects through litigation - this is sometimes true.

The beautification of the famous Queen's Necklace would be an example of such mindless opposition. Reliance Industries, one of India's biggest corporate houses offered to spend Rs 50 million (Rs 5 crores) on beautifying India's most famous promenade - Marine Drive or the Queen's Necklace.

The NGO brigade decided that Reliance was trying to extract undue mileage from the project and decided to scuttle it. Their efforts culminated in a seminar at which the project was roundly trashed by architects and other do-gooders.

They faulted the design, the construction material, and objected most vociferously to Reliance's proposal to insert a small brass plaque (1 ft. x 1 ft.) bearing the corporate name and logo into the parapet. The NGOs decided that this amounted to excessive publicity for Reliance.

So aggressive was their criticism that it never occurred to the municipal corporation or the NGOs to set up a committee, which would examine the project and outline ground rules for such corporate participation in beautification projects.

These rules would have to bear in mind that publicly listed companies have to justify such expenditure to their shareholders, and that large cities with bankrupt municipal treasuries would need corporate funding for non-essential expenditure such as beautification.

At the height of the campaign against the Marine Drive project, a leading newspaper published an absurd front-page report saying something to the effect that poor people will be too overawed to visit a beautiful Marine Drive with 'shiny' granite walkways. This is how public opinion is easily manipulated against projects.

Consider the situation five years later. Marine Drive's pot-holed pathway promises twisted ankles to walkers and the sea washes away bits of the promenade every year.

At the same time, another beautiful seafront at Worli has been superficially spruced up, with new benches and a painted bulwark that skirts around a huge gaping hole in the walkway that has been washed away during the last monsoon.

Part of the beautification is wrought iron enclosures to protect trees planted about 50 meters apart along the road. These enclosures now support huge, brightly lit advertisement hoarding promoting a toothpaste brand and a bank, which are at least three feet high and two feet wide.

Where then are the architects and heritage experts who shot down the beautification of Marine Drive? Why are there no protests about these offensively garish hoardings? Shouldn't these groups take responsible for depriving Mumbai of a beautiful Marine Drive? Similarly who takes the responsibility for all the projects that are mindlessly scuttled?

The World Bank estimates that a one per cent growth in infrastructure development translates to a one per cent growth in the economy. Can we then allow infrastructure projects to be scuttled due to an absence of information leading to ill-considered protests and litigation?

The Pedder Road example shows that people are not always swayed by NGO protests - but they too will demand full and correct information and accountability on the part of government and its infrastructure developers.

It is now up to the government to build on the unprecedented public support to the Pedder Road flyover to create a mechanism for an open and constructive dialogue with the people.

Public support will allow the government to sequence development projects, build public transport systems and deal more effectively with mighty trade unions and public sector transportation monopolies, which have killed competition in the past.


-- Sucheta Dalal



 



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