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More than just asphalt

More than just asphalt

Infrastructure spending is a big item on the government’s agenda. In the 2011-12 budget alone, Rs2.14 trillion has been allocated for this sector, amounting to 48.5% of the gross budgetary support to Plan expenditure. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has on more than one occasion said the country needs a huge investment for infrastructure. Just as often, he has mentioned a $1 trillion requirement during the 12th Plan (2012-17).

The private sector is a big participant in developing infrastructure, often in the form of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Large sums of money are passed on to private builders and firms as upfront transfers in the form of viability gap funding, annuity payments and through other modes.

Yet, this important innovation is beyond the pale of public scrutiny. The Right to Information (RTI) Act does not include PPPs. Section 2(h) of the Act specifies that any non-government organization substantially funded by the government can be classed as a public authority and hence brought under the cover of the RTI Act. There is, however, a great deal of resistance to allow a careful look at the working of PPPs through RTI. Recently, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia questioned the link between the performance of a project concessionaire’s work with RTI.

The link is obvious. Public resources under the government’s control, such as land and money, are often transferred to private firms for infrastructure projects. For example, the government on average pays an annuity of around Rs5,200 crore for highway projects. By one estimate, its liability on this account is close to a huge Rs83,000 crore. Surely such sums merit a closer look at the functioning of PPPs, more so when a significant amount of risk from these projects lies with the government and not individual builders. Originally, the rationale for involving the private sector was the government’s inability to fund and execute big projects. That has been lost sight of.

The fear that such tools can turn into publicly organized witch hunts against builders/firms to “settle scores", or that they will become a playground for business rivalries, is overstated. The information commissioners implementing RTI are seasoned civil servants and there are multiple appellate layers built into the system to eliminate any mala fide goals.

Should infrastructure PPPs be subject to RTI? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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