The Prime Minister’s homily to industry has eclipsed his earlier remarks on corruption, where he said: “A major reason for poor quality roads is corruption… (which) has spread like cancer to every corner of our vast country. I sincerely hope we can implement both Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) and Bharat Nirman without this affliction, and in a transparent and accountable manner.” Coming from the PM, this is unacceptable. We need more than “hope”, however sincere, especially since the PMGSY and most of Bharat Nirman are centrally-funded schemes with expenditure according to central guidelines. Instead, we need a plan of action. Let me humbly offer the following draft:
“Road construction in India has always been plagued by corruption, but the PMGSY has reduced this significantly. This is because new practices and systems have been put in place. We would urge other departments and levels of government to put in place similar systems to root out corruption. Rural roads are just one manifestation of the disease that afflicts delivery of services to our citizens. This is one disease we are determined to eradicate.
The most potent vaccine against corruption is transparency and this is why have enacted the Right to Information (RTI) Act. So far, it is being used primarily by the more aware and less vulnerable sections of society. We are also aware that responding to RTI requests is putting administrative pressure on government departments. To remedy these flaws, we are launching one of the biggest awareness campaigns in India. We are also creating a new common pool of RTI Associates, formed by redeploying surplus staff, to help all departments with RTI requests.
We are answerable to the people. To help them hold us accountable in key areas of service delivery, we are defining outcomes in a manner that can be simply measured by them. To monitor road quality, we are providing measurement instruments in every district to be available to all panchayats for use in testing the roads in their area. Drawing upon international experience, we are instituting a community-managed maintenance programme for rural roads, whereby performance-specified maintenance contracts will be awarded to local groups. Like self-help groups for solid waste management in urban areas, these groups will be assisted in obtaining all necessary equipment.
We are introducing biometric methods to ensure attendance of employees. We are starting new testing systems to enable people to check outcomes for themselves, e.g., learning in schools and health of children in anganwadi centres. We are installing time of day meters on every electricity feeder to measure hours and voltage of supply. These actions shall be supplemented with extensive awareness campaigns on these outcome measures and results widely publicized through panchayats, so that people can verify the data for themselves.
Apart from popular accountability, we are reforming audit systems in government. For too long, in our relationship with private sector contractors, we paid them for inputs provided. This has enabled them to avoid responsibility and has bred corruption among inspectors charged with maintaining input quality. This is most evident in roads and buildings, where poor construction, using inferior quality inputs, leads to deterioration soon after construction and increases maintenance requirements.
Our new public private partnership (PPP) approach is designed specifically to attack this problem by holding the private sector to a higher standard of accountability and service delivery. Henceforth, in all our major contracts, we shall combine the construction and maintenance responsibilities in a single contract and the contractor shall be paid over time, based on whether the asset is maintained according to specified standards.
Further, every asset, e.g., each building and kilometre of road, is being given a unique GIS (geographical information system) ID. This will enable us to track how much expenditure we incur on building and maintaining each asset. It will also allow us to benchmark across similar assets and different maintenance systems to ensure that we get real value for money. Finally, we will make funding predictable through medium-term plans for major schemes. Our budget documents will also provide actual expenditure on each scheme, which they do not currently.”
These are eminently implementable actions, and not politically sensitive either. Indeed, a small beginning has been made in PMGSY itself. It has web-based monitoring systems and uses contracts with multi-year maintenance guarantees. It even released a Quality Assurance Manual at the conference. But, key issues, such as maintenance, are still unclear and popular accountability, a distant hope. Why isn’t the PM building on this base? And if he is, why isn’t he saying so?
Partha Mukhopadhyay is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. These are his personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org