Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Disastrous April

Countries have a memorial to the unknown warrior; we need a memorial to the victim of misgovernance

The forest fires in Uttarakhand rounded off a month dominated by a string of man-made disasters of gigantic proportions. Each of them was underpinned by failure of governance. April began with the collapse of an overbridge in Kolkata, a result of repeatedly overshot deadlines which exposed the half-built structure to several cycles of rain and sun. The bridge was meant to solve urban congestion, but it criminally added to that congestion over the long years it lay under construction. Then there was the temple fire in Kerala. In both cases, there was tragic loss of life. Then in mid-April came the Case of the Disappearing Food Stocks from Punjab godowns, funded with food credit from public sector banks estimated at between 12,000-20,000 crore. And there was the overarching drought enveloping much of the country, a natural disaster, but exacerbated by official neglect of something whose inevitability was known at least six months ago.

Aside from the malfeasance involved in the Kolkata overbridge, it was the wrong solution to congestion caused by concentration in the same urban locality of wholesale markets for spices, garments and plastics. Any one of these could have congested the area just by itself. What was needed was decongestion by dispersing those wholesale hubs. Why was this not the chosen course of action, and why do successive governments dither instead of emphatically reversing an earlier bad decision? Each congested knot in urban India calls for a solution addressing the congestion cause specific to it. After the bridge collapsed, the impossibility of access for disaster rescue workers further raised the death toll.

The Kerala fire once again posed problems of rescue access in congested areas. Even small towns like Paravoor, where the temple fire happened, which had a population of less than 50,000, can have congested knots like that in which the temple was located, as bad as any in a larger city. The Thirteenth Finance Commission attempted to improve urban fire safety, a listed responsibility of municipal government, through the structure of its grant to municipalities over the horizon 2010-15. Like all such grants, this one too was carved up into state-wise allocations. One stream of the municipal grant had a performance component, which was contingent among other things on all municipalities with a million-plus population in the state having a published fire hazard response and mitigation plan in the state government gazette. The subsequent grant flow was meant to fund those plans. The intent was that responsibility for the entire area of the state would be partitioned between these million-plus city hubs.

Kerala received the urban performance grant right from 2011-12, the very first year of the performance grant provision, from which we have to infer that they had a published fire response plan in place for all their million-plus cities. But we don’t know for sure. It was the responsibility of the Ministry of Urban Development to check that the conditionalities were met, but they in turn outsourced the work. We do not know what the outsourced agency did, since none of the data given to them to decide on which states qualified is available on any website. Whatever we know about the flow of the urban grant is courtesy of the website of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.

But the Kerala disaster was actually located in a different type of governance failure. Here was an instance where permission for fireworks at a temple event was actually denied, but where the flouting of that denial was not monitored. A fireworks display of those dimensions takes several hours to assemble. Surprisingly, information about these preparations did not reach the ears of the district administration. Governance in India has become a matter of file movement. Cognisance cannot be taken of anything that is not written down in a file.

The disappearing foodgrain in Punjab again was something that happened over several months, to the knowledge of several dozen people. Heists of that magnitude take team effort. Those grain purchases were legitimately financed by food credit from commercial banks. Sovereign default, by the Centre or by state governments, is so rare that the normal presumption by the banking regulator, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), would have been that the loans would be serviced notwithstanding the underlying physical loss. But the RBI this time instructed banks, among them the State Bank of India, to make the usual loan loss provision towards potential default.

How have we come to this? Purchase of food stocks, their transfer from the agricultural market yard to godowns, is supposed to be monitored by processes of long standing including physical checks. This scandal in Punjab had been circulating in the grapevine for months, but was publicly recognised in April only because of the decision by the banking regulator to provide for possible default by the borrower (the Punjab state government).

Food credit is a standard component of bank credit. Quarterly monitoring by banks, involving bank inspection of foodgrain purchase and storage is not routinely done, since the borrowing government is supposed to do it. The implicit trust of banks in governmental processes has been utterly betrayed in this case.

The RBI governor has spoken out against crony capitalism, but what we have in India is a somewhat different variant. Classical cronyism of the wink and nudge variety happens between associates of long standing. What we have here is marketised cronyism, where you don’t start out as a crony, but pay your way. It is a more equal opportunity variant.

Finally, as an overlay, there was the drought in many parts of the country, particularly acute in Maharashtra, with adults and children hauling water over long and parched distances. Field intelligence about the water situation should have been reaching the agriculture and panchayati raj departments of the relevant state governments as much as six weeks ago. These should have morphed into alarm bells a month ago. Trains should have been routinely running since then to Latur and other affected districts.

The endlessly delayed (and unnecessary) bridge, fires, theft of official stocks of foodgrain, drought—the governance failure in all these cases is at the level of state governments, ruled by parties varying widely in political alignment. What has led to governance right across the political spectrum being locked into such inaction?

The Kolkata bridge traversed right across a change of guard between bitter political rivals. The party in power does not seem to matter. Is government so populated by internal enemies, that an honest responsive official gets his hands tied by jealous colleagues threatening a vigilance complaint? A cricketing analogy would be if betting accusations are hung over every good batsman, so that he feels obliged to check with his captain after each ball is bowled before he plays his shot. The forces who have betted on India losing get to romp home with their loot.

Before the forest fires in Uttarakhand rounded off the month, there was a small intervening forest disaster. In a lapse of a moment while forest guards at Kaziranga were diverted from their duty posts to attend to the royal visitors from the UK, several bullets were pumped into a rhino and its horn yanked out while it was still alive to feed into the Chinese medicine industry. In such a closely fought battleground, where several poaching episodes had happened even when all guards were at their duty posts, why were replacements not brought in from the Border Security Force (BSF), or other such agencies whose personnel populate the Northeast?

We can see why that could not happen. The request for such a temporary loan of personnel would have had to travel up from Kaziranga through the forest department of the Assam government to the home department, a new file created (titled Royal Visit to Kaziranga: Diversion of Forest Guards reg.), a message sent to the central office of the BSF, which then would have had to check with its Assam office to see whether such a loan of personnel might be possible. The final response most likely would have been to say there were no surplus personnel because of budget stringency. Even if the BSF could not spare anyone for forest duty, surely it was their assigned task, in a poaching episode whose date of extraction they knew so precisely, to stand ready at the Myanmar border?

Every so often, the Indian voter obligingly goes to the polling booth, in the hope that a change of guard will help. But structural gridlock remains because the political rewards to keeping them in place are so much greater than the political rewards to unlocking them.

Many countries have a national memorial to the unknown warrior. We need in addition a memorial to the unknown victim of misgovernance.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist.