Swades - Episode I

I was going back after almost 2 and half years and I was apprehensive. Made a couple of notes to myself to not do the following:
One, to avoid the Old-boy Syndrome. Much as I would like Pune to remain frozen in time to August 2002 it would not be. Time rolls on and things change. There will be more ghastly buildings that I won't be able to come to terms with. Live with it!

Two, to avoid the Expat Syndrome and stop talking of how things are different 'over-there' and how we will never rise from the rubbish heap and how everyone is constantly late!

The roads
Both my resolutions were shattered with my first intimate experience with Pune's roads. I have seen bad roads but not to the extent that I wish natural selection had provided Punekars with shock absorbers for their backsides! To travel on them would require, as Ramanand said, "A lunar buggy". Sakal even started a column called 'Pune gayle kHaDyAAt', loosely translated as: Pune has gone to pot! While it is true that due to the unnatural amount of rainfall, roads were bound to be affected. I was not upset with that as much as two general issues which still cause me worry and which this case highlights.
he creation of problems and the solutions or reponses to them.

While most roads were devastated why were some roads still relatively unaffected? Of course, due to differences in material and construction. Reason? How is a contractor supposed to win the tender, provide kickbacks to the corporators and still have money left over for good material and honest construction? There has to be a better way to award contracts and punish firms with poor records. Can you minimize corruption and still ensure that the task gets done well and the public does not have to suffer? Privatisation is not the answer as I was to learn in a few days.

Assume that some problems are inherent in the system. At least, the response to the crisis should be appropriate. The great PMC decided that the best 'temporary' solution was to fill the potholes. But with what? Gravel! In the weeks that I was there, I saw tons of teams doing work (good!) but the fix was so 'temporary' that in less then 2-3 days all the gravel would come loose and the road in addition to the potholes would become a roller-skating rink. It was far from funny to hear that more than a few people died in accidents while trying to avoid the potholes due to a collision with a car or truck.

I was depressed because this problem is characteristic of development in India. A few weeks later, I visited China and saw on what path a country much like our own is on and tears came to my eyes. There are critical differences in terms of attitude between the two countries and because of it we might not make it. We are poor at planning, especially advance planning, and in cases when we do plan we have extremely poor execution. To make matters worse we can't even put out the fire right. It was a bitter fact for me to swallow that despite all the hype and hoopla in the Indian media about India shining in the world arena and other success stories, we not only behind but are falling further behind the Chinese. Only because we don't want it so bad as nation.

Yet, I am happy to be in a democracy where citizen can be furious and can put up such petitions (thanks to Javed for this funny one!).


Ashutosh said...

Hmmm...sad. The excuse about us having better English skills than the Chinese has already become a lame one. Like they say, we are close to success, yet a stone's throw from despair. As someone noted, these days, it is literally the fashion to cite our current problems and then talk about 'brave glimmers of hope'. All that is certainly going to come to nought. If improvements are not done at the most basic levels, we are certainly going to slip into the depths of despair...

Siddharth Rege said...


I disagree with only 1 point you have made, since the others are too ture to warrant argument. I believe privatization IS the answer. But not small scale privatization, but very large scale privatization. The problem in pune is that every 1 km worth of road is given to a different small contractor. By the time he has paid the corporator and everybody else, there is no money left for the raw materials. Hence the mess. Plus we do not know who to blame for the shoddy construction of a particular small road.
On the other hand, most large projects in India are successes or spectacular failures where there is someone obvious at fault. Thus the bombay-pune expressway is great and so are many of the inter-city highways but the most connecting roads to the expressway and intra-city roads are a total mess.
The solution: Give ONLY huge companies large contracts. There should be conditions that only companies with say 10k crore market cap need apply for contracts. So only 1 or 2 companies should be given a multi-thousand crore contract to maintain all roads in pune. Now even though the big company has to give a kick-back to the corporators, as a percentage of the total project cost it is a minor amount. Plus the company reputation is very publicly on show and so they usually do a good job. Tata Power in Bombay is another example of this.
Ashutosh, don't despair. India will trundle along. It will never go in fourth gear like China, but it wont collapse either as China could due to internal pressures.

Hirak said...

The Indian couple who I visited in Beijing are working for Aptech which is training the Chinese in software skills and the company is doing really well.
I hope we don't slip into despair, hopefully the public is a little more skeptical about progress reports and more demanding for work to be done and done well.

You have a good idea in principle an and it will minimize the % of corruption. It would be nice to know know how well the massive privatization of the electricity in Mumbai is working.

Coming back to applying the principle in practice: I don't know off-hand any Indian companies that are large enough and capable/willing to handle these large projects such road construction. If we do adopt that policy then we will soon have the possibility of Haliburton, Bechtel, etc. winning the contracts. We saw what a fiasco Enron was.

Siddharth Rege said...


Indian companies are getting pretty huge old boy. At current count, there are atleast a half dozen or more companies that can undertake billion dollar level projects. Tata infrastructure, reliance, IVRCL, Gail, IDFC etc can easily take on the project. Whether they want to or not only depends on how sweet the deal is. For instance, one would say that none would be interested in the Bombay Airport remodelling contract since it involves the very sticky problem of removing the encroached shanties. But with a good enough deal, 6 consortiums have made bids for the project.
The question is not whether companies will be willing but whether the currupt son-of-a-bitch local politicians will allow it. THey naturally wont as it is not their interest to have a permanent solution. But a national mandate (i.e. where the Union government says that the following big cities will have single contractors) would out it out of their hands. ANd hope is not lost.... The VAT (Value added Tax) is a similar corruption reduction move and it has been passed in almost all states. As they say, where there is a will there is a way.

Hirak said...

Good to know that there are quite a few players in the market for such an enterprise, since you don't want a cartel of sorts.
Thankfully, despite Laloo, et al governments at the centre have had sense to implement good measures. My point is that it just might be - too little and too late.
Kicking out the shantytowns is not an easy problem - they vote and have more votes and politicians know that. That's democracy for you !