Where does all the money in con­struc­tion go?

Ide­ally, ac­counts of city and state — all ex­penses paid out of tax­pay­ers’ pock­ets — ought to be ac­ces­si­ble to pub­lic

The Hindu - - WHEELS - :: An­nie Zaidi

One of my favourite travel sto­ries is from a re­port­ing as­sign­ment in ru­ral Ra­jasthan. For trips into ru­ral ar­eas, I’d usu­ally have to hire a large ve­hi­cle like a Sumo or some other kind of SUV, since there were ei­ther bad roads or no roads at all. Then there would be some ar­eas where we’d have to aban­don the ve­hi­cle and walk.

On this par­tic­u­lar trip, we were on no-road ter­rain. Yet, there was a sign planted firmly on the ground. ‘Speed breaker ahead’.

I no­ticed and laughed at the irony. How could there be a speed breaker if there was no road? But I was wrong. Sure enough, there was a speed breaker. A mighty one too. It seemed at least a foot high and was solid con­crete. The con­trac­tor tasked with mak­ing that road may have had a twinge of con­science, or else, he was given to dark hu­mour. He cer­tainly did put some of the money where it be­longed — in con­crete.

If there’s one thing that al­most ev­ery­one agrees upon, it is that there’s money in con­struc­tion. Well, con­trac­tors and builders might dis­agree, per­haps with good rea­son. There may not be as much money in it for them as it ap­pears on pa­per, be­cause there are sev­eral pay­ments to make, not all of them le­gal. Even so, mod­ern liv­ing re­quires a whole lot of con­crete, tar and steel.

Ex­am­ine bud­gets for our ‘pub­lic’ projects, and you will likely see that the lion’s share is given to con­struc­tion. Huge sta­dia and sports com­plexes, fly­overs and metro sta­tions, air­ports and prom­e­nades and roads, of course. There are of­fices and guest houses and toi­lets too. Throw in the odd school, col­lege or hos­pi­tal. All of this in­fra­struc­ture is nec­es­sary, of course. We need rail­way sta­tions and roads and schools, so we rarely ques­tion the ex­pense. Trou­ble is, we also don’t look very closely at how much is spent on ac­tual con­struc­tion, and how of­ten the work needs re­pairs.

In re­cent months, there has been a lot of heart­burn about road re­pair com­plaints, es­pe­cially about pot­holes. Bad roads are in­con­ve­nient to say the least; they are also a health haz­ard. The risk of in­juries to the neck and back are real, but can­not eas­ily be proved to have been caused or ex­ac­er­bated on ac­count of a rough ride. In­stead of fo­cussing on good, long-last­ing con­struc­tion, or even ex­am­in­ing the rea­sons why roads have been crum­bling so eas­ily in re­cent years, po­lit­i­cal out­fits have re­sponded with ag­gres­sion. Then the ag­gres­sion and the re­sul­tant out­rage dies down, and it’s back to busi­ness. There are no as­sur­ances that things will be any dif­fer­ent next month, or next mon­soon.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is pos­si­ble to build last­ing struc­tures. But it is pos­si­ble only if we have good in­for­ma­tion.

So­ci­ety is not made of con­crete, but units of in­for­ma­tion. Build­ing things, mak­ing com­plaints, mak­ing laws, seek­ing jus­tice — all of these processes rest on in­for­ma­tion. This is also why in­for­ma­tion is ei­ther with­held or given out very re­luc­tantly. And this is pre­cisely why cit­i­zens must keep de­mand­ing it.

Ide­ally, ac­counts of the city and state — all ex­penses paid out of tax­pay­ers’ pock­ets — ought to be up­loaded on­line as well as eas­ily ac­cessed in print at the lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal and state gov­ern­ment of­fice. We ought to be able to see maps, who built — or didn’t build — a road,

what they bid, how they split cost and profit, also which of­fi­cial in­spected the work and gave it the fi­nal thumbs up. This in­for­ma­tion sits in files like a caged an­i­mal. There is no good rea­son why it should not be set free to serve as a pub­lic watch­dog.

The au­thor is a writer of es­says, sto­ries, po­ems and scripts for stage and screen

Trou­ble is, we also don’t look very closely at how much is spent on ac­tual con­struc­tion, and how of­ten the work needs re­pairs

R.V. MOOR­THY ■

On the street where you live Delhi’s MG Road un­der con­struc­tion

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