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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

January 01, 2009

"Those politicians and bureaucrats sitting in Delhi should stop making castles in the air," thundered an official of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board I met recently. "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 the state engineering services organisations in the country 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," he added.

His contention surprised me as I begin to wonder how can state engineering services be considered so important as to be put alongside ISRO and DRDO? The official explains, "In India, 70% of total budgetary allocation is disbursed through engineering departments yet they are not given their due recognition. 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. We are the ones who carry out all the development works approved by the central and state governments at the grassroot level."

A glance 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 a particular state is under Governor's rule.

Hence in normal circumstances, the central government has no control over several important subjects, critical to infrastructure development – public health & sanitation, agriculture, roads & bridges, water supply and irrigation. Another important subject, electricity, is a part of 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 through various state engineering departments.

Thus it is at the level of the state engineering services, under the respective state governments, that the real action on development of 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 organisations in all the provinces 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 lies with the state governments who pay no heed to the problems that the officials in state engineering services face. The situation is same in every department in almost every state in India.

Many of these organisations have adequate resources in terms of the capabilities of people working there. 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, most of them have not got their promotions despite having served for as long as 25 years. An official of Madhya Pradesh Public Health Engineering Department contends that it is not an issue of social-status but a denial of opportunity to reach a position where one can show his real capabilities. "If given proper opportunities, we can actually contribute to a great extent in eradicating poverty and unemployment in rural areas. 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 without getting a chance to do their bit for the development of the country," says another official belonging to the Bihar Water Resources Department.

The officials in state engineering services face every problem one can think of from political interference to non-payment of salaries on time. Many of these 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 execution of civil engineering projects requires people of younger age-groups. The apathy on the part of respective state governments breeds corruption and inefficiency in the ranks of these departments. It fosters the nexus between corrupt officials and private contractors. Many a times, private contractors protected by influential politicians, get success in acquiring contracts by pressurising the officials. They know that, in most cases of such kind, local administration will pay no heed to the woes of the state engineering department officials.

An official of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, the organisation responsible for providing clean drinking water and efficient sewerage system in the state, says "People may feel that these are minor issues but only those working in these organisations can only understand the difficulties. If these problems are solved, the state services organisations can completely transform the rural and urban landscape of India within a decade." He underlines the importance of basic amenities in the lives of people, and hence of the state services organisations them by narrating an interesting tale.

He recalls how 25 years ago no piped water supply or hand pumps existed in several villages in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh. Women of these villages would sing on their way to a pond named Bhaora located some 10 kilometers away with earthen pots on their heads to fetch water. The pond 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, instead my husband die)

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India.

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