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Why India Fails Again And Again

In their quest for SEZ-based development, the plight of the state engineering services remains ignored by both central and state governments.

By Anubhav Srivastava

November 16, 2008

"Those politicians and bureaucrats sitting in Delhi should stop making castles in the air," thunders an official of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. "Our role in nation-building is as important as that of ISRO, DRDO, BARC or any other organisation yet no attention is paid to us and the problems we face in our day to day functioning. If we and other state services organisation continue to remain in shambles, India will never be able to achieve any of its targets in social, infrastructure and development sector. Poverty will never be eradicated and the idea of generating 'real income' from 'real assets' will remain only a pipe dream." 


Can Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, and other little known state engineering services organisations, be deemed so important? The official explains – "Jal Nigam is the largest public health engineering department in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. It has the dual role of providing clean drinking water supply and an efficient sewerage system across the state. Imagine a city with filth all over and no water to clean it." He hence argues that every engineer working for Jal Nigam is equivalent to a thousand doctors. He adds that other organisations working at the state level are playing a similar and important role in creating infrastructure at the grass-root level. "It is the state engineering services which are primarily responsible for ensuring basic amenities like drinking water, roads, electricity and irrigation in both urban and rural areas – amenities without which India can never emerge as a developed nation," he adds.


A look at the Indian Constitution makes the matters more clear. The seventh schedule provides a clear-cut division of powers between the centre and the state governments on various subjects. The subjects have been divided into three categories – The union list, the state list and the concurrent list. The union government can frame laws and have executive control over the subjects mentioned in the state list only if the state is under Governor's rule. Hence in normal circumstances, the central government has no control over several important subjects, which are critical to infrastructure development at the grass-root level – public health and sanitation, agriculture, roads and bridges, water supply and irrigation. Another important subject, electricity, is listed in the concurrent list on which both state and central governments can frame laws. The grants and funds for various development works are allocated by the central government to various state governments. The state governments then disburse the funds to its various departments.


Thus it is at the level of the state engineering services, under the respective state governments, that the real action on development of the basic amenities takes place. Without these basic amenities, even industries, which create jobs and generate revenues for the government, cannot survive. Every year, development works worth billions of rupees is carried out by these state-level organisations in every state in India. Often questions are raised in various forums on why despite spending huge amount of money every year on various development and anti-poverty schemes, large parts of India still remain underdeveloped. The participants usually blame corruption at all levels for the sorry state of affairs. However a part of the blame lie with the state governments who pay no heed to the problems that the officials in state services organisations face. The situation is same in almost every state in India.


Many of these organisations have adequate resources in terms of quality of human resource. It is not unusual to find people working in these organisations who have passed out of prestigious institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). However, many of them have not got their promotions despite having served for as long as 25 years. The official contends that it is not an issue of social status but a simple denial of an opportunity to reach a position where one can show his real capabilities. "If given proper opportunities, we can actually contribute as much in the field of infrastructure development as the scientists in ISRO do in the field of space research, but this inexplicable lack of concern on the part of successive state governments ensures that some of the most talented people in India remain at the fringes," he says.


The officials in state services face every problem one can think of from political interference to non payment of salaries on time. Many departments have stopped new recruitments leading to a severe shortage of young people at lower levels. This has an impact on the quality of work as civil engineering works require people of younger age-groups for supervision of work.


The official adds, "People may feel that these are minor issues but only those working in these organisations can only understand the difficulties. He underlines the importance of basic amenities in the lives of people, and also of the state services organisations responsible for providing them, by giving an example of how women in several villages in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh would sing on their way to a pond named Bhaora located some 20 kilometress away with earthen pots on their heads. It was the only source of potable drinking water for them. And the words of the song, unusual considering the Indian customs and traditions, were –


"Bhaore tera paani gazab kara jaaye re,

Gagri na phoote, khasam bhale mar jaaye re"


(Oh Bhaore, your water makes us do wonders,

This earthen pot should not break, even if my husband dies)

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India. 

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