Of Human Capital

The recent airport canopy collapses at Delhi, Jabalpur and Rajkot, and the series of bridge collapses in Bihar, Jharkhand and Manipur, have severely dented the dream of a viksit Bharat.

Of Human Capital

Representation image

The recent airport canopy collapses at Delhi, Jabalpur and Rajkot, and the series of bridge collapses in Bihar, Jharkhand and Manipur, have severely dented the dream of a viksit Bharat. A slugfest has ensued with authorities blaming record rainfall, shoddy construction during the previous regime, and the Opposition alleging contractor-politician nexus, lack of upkeep, corruption, and the like. But basic issues like the country’s need for bullet trains, massive buildings etc., when 80 crore of the population survive on heavily subsidised rations, have never been fully discussed.

The connected issue of having sufficient local trained manpower to design advanced infrastructure according to local requirements, or even operate it, is hardly considered, while going in for mega-projects. According to the latest Quarterly Project Implementation Report of Ministry of Statistics and Project Implementation, 448 projects had an aggregate cost overrun of Rs.5.55 lakh crore ~ 65.2 per cent of their projected cost and 902 projects of the 1,837 studied were delayed ~ showing our ineptness in executing large projects.

Also, most infrastructure projects are financed by debt ~ raising our indebtedness to unacceptable levels. Be that as it may, the underlying cause of man-made disasters ~ depreciation in human capital over the years ~ is hardly mentioned, let alone addressed. Repeated examination paper leaks are probably the most frustrating phenomenon for our youth. Many of us, born in the 1950s and 60s, remember with gratitude our teachers, who gave their best to us, even while working at subsistence wages.


Times have changed ~ teachers of today do not mind indulging in undesirable activities, like not teaching in school but in coaching classes, and selling question papers. Not surprisingly, with such role models, and no moral instruction in schools, we have a generation of youngsters lacking morality. Long ago, PM Rajiv Gandhi said that out of every rupee spent by the Government, 85 paise were eaten away. The current dispensation is fond of saying that things have changed, and the entire rupee is now being spent productively ~ a claim belied by crumbling airports and bridges.

Even more insidious is the falling standard of public representatives. Last year, just before the Delhi floods, there was an unsavoury court battle between the Lieutenant Governor and Chief Minister over who should chair the panel for cleaning the Yamuna. Yet, when the Yamuna overflowed, displacing thousands and causing untold misery, neither of the two was willing to take responsibility. The inescapable conclusion is that a fight between politicians is mainly for the fishes and loaves of office; this was well summed up by a Shiv Sena (Shinde) minister, when the Ajit Pawar faction of NCP joined the Government: “We had a full loaf, from now on, we will have to make do with half a loaf.”

This year, a day’s rain paralysed our capital city ~ showing that no corrective action had been taken after last year’s debacle. The inevitable war of words between political parties followed, starkly similar to what happened after last year’s floods when the Central Government publicly blamed the Delhi Government for inaction, and the Delhi Government came out with all guns blazing against the Central Government and its own bureaucrats, the crowning ignominy being a press conference addressed by bureaucrats against Delhi ministers ~ all at a time when the first priority of everyone should have been mitigation of human suffering and prevention of flooding.

Significantly, after this surfeit of verbosity, the Army and Navy were called in for flood control and relief; they quickly did the needful. Several basic questions arise: Why do governments not protect floodplains and wetlands from encroachment, stop construction on lakes and ponds, get drains cleaned annually, and get rivers desilted, at least near cities. Last year in a shocking dereliction of duty, barrage gates of the Yamuna were found jammed, leading to flooding. Also, water pits were left open, resulting in drowning of unsuspecting people, going about their usual business. The fury of the rain god can neither be predicted nor lessened, but good planning and timely action can definitely mitigate human suffering. Every day, newspapers carry news of corruption at all levels of Government: during the year, till now, twelve Delhi Police personnel had been arrested for offences like bribery and extortion.

More had been arrested for conducting fake raids, snatching etc. In fact, in a viral video, policemen can be seen running, with the CBI team in hot pursuit ~ a case of cops and robbers both being policemen. One wonders if the police cannot prevent their own colleagues from engaging in criminal activities, can a common man hope that the police would prevent criminals from targeting him? Official figures of crimes are daunting enough ~ with 7,000 daily complaints of cyber-crime alone with zero arrests, criminals of all hues appear to be having a field day.

At the same time, the administrative and police machinery seems to be in deep slumber, waking up only to collect hafta or at politically opportune times e.g., to demolish the houses of suspected criminals. No wonder, the Worldwide Governance Indicators ( WGI) that ranks 215 countries and territories on six dimensions of governance viz. Voice and Accountability; Political Stability and Absence of Violence/ Terrorism; Government Effectiveness; Regulatory Quality; Rule of Law; Control of Corruption, placed India at 68th place with a meagre score of 48.9 out of 100. WGI rankings have attracted the attention of the Government, which raised some valid objections about the methodology adopted.

Also, in a telling instance, four years ago, the Principal Economic Advisor (PEA) in the Ministry of Finance, gave a presentation on ways to improve India’s ranking in WGI, but unfortunately, the PEA’s entire emphasis was on countering the “negative commentary on India by think tanks, survey agencies and international media” ~ not on improving governance. Lack of good governance impacts citizens in many ways; we have religious festivals where stampedes kill hundreds, road cave-ins on newly built roads, underpasses filled with rainwater, and poorly constructed buildings that had cost taxpayers hundreds of crores of rupees.

The Government and their apologists want to pass off these incidents as isolated and localised, but the underlying thread of governance failure cannot be ignored. The days seem long gone when some few upright men of sterling character, with meagre resources but full determination, could provide good governance to the entire country. The present lot of administrators is much better placed in terms of resources ~ financial, infrastructural and technological ~ yet the output is definitely poorer, with good reporting substituting for good governance.

With time, the public has lost all hope in a system in which administrators blame politicians, and vice versa, and both curse the elements, foreign powers, or even Nehru, when things go wrong, The reason for the rot is not difficult to miss; over the years the bureaucratic machinery has become increasingly slothful and corrupt; most Government schemes fail to deliver desired results, because they are implemented by ill-trained, lethargic bureaucrats, who treat Government employment as a sinecure.

To improve the functioning of the bureaucracy, the Government had launched the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building (Mission Karmayogi) in September 2020, with a timeline of one year. However, so far, Mission Karmayogi has not taken off; there has been no impetus in the training of civil servants, and in many cases, the right person is not in the right position. But a much simpler solution is possible: the Government can make decision-making transparent and make the bureaucracy responsible for decisions taken by them, including decisions for not taking a decision.

A recent example will suffice. All that went wrong in the aftermath of heavy rainfall in Delhi could have been significantly lessened if certain mundane tasks had been completed in time e.g., drains had been cleaned before the monsoon, the Yamuna River had been desilted and the functioning of barrage gates checked. However, devastation during the floods showed that the thousands of employees, supervised by hundreds of officers, employed in various Government departments, for these very purposes, totally neglected their duties. Let alone punishing the guilty, no enquiry has been held into the circumstances leading to the flood, and the deficient response thereto.

Mayhem unleashed by a day’s rain this year shows that there is little change on the ground. According to Brooks Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter: “The perfect bureaucrat everywhere is the man who manages to make no decisions and escape all responsibility.” Perhaps, we have a perfect bureaucracy

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)