Monday, September 06, 2004


Times of India, Sept 05, 2004

The 'last mile' is a nice way to think about governance, and I was happy when Finance Minister Chidambaram used this phrase in his budget speech. The last mile is the place where the state meets the citizen, a space that our impudent public servants would prefer to forget. Chidambaram has proposed the sensible idea to maximise returns from existing investments in irrigation by completing the last mile in dozens of incomplete projects across the country.

My engineer father also used to talk about the last mile when I was young. He had in mind feeder canals from Bhakra Dam that he would build to irrigate farmers' fields. It was a simple, logical idea, which his 12-year-old son grasped easily, but no one told the boy that callous, insolent politicians will do everything but the logical.

The Narmada flows serenely across Madhya Pradesh. In the 1970s, the state government began to harness the river. It built a dam near Jabalpur, at Bargi, submerged 162 villages, displaced thousands of people, but forgot to build the canals. So far, it has spent Rs 2,800 crore on this project but realised only 14 per cent of its irrigation potential — just 56,000 hectares have received water instead of the promised 400,000. Lakhs of people in the districts of Jabalpur, Katni, Narsinghpur, Satna are still waiting for water that is so near and yet so far. By spending another 25 per cent this vast area would have been bursting with prosperity and become the granary of central India. Instead, it remains arid and poor.

What went wrong is that succeeding chief ministers diverted Bargi's funds for projects in their own constituencies. The first one started a dam at Bansagar in northeast Madhya Pradesh. Before he could finish it, the second deflected Bargi's and Bansagar's funds to his constituency in Chattisgarh. A third came along and rerouted the funds to his Khandwa district. In the latter, Rs 5,369 crore Indira Sagar project, the dam has again been built, but there is no irrigation in sight. The water table in Khandwa keeps falling and people feel betrayed.

The 12 year old inside me wants to know why they don't build canals at the same time as the dam? It is what they did at Bhakra and at Sardar Sarovar next door in Gujarat. If they had built canals simultaneously in Bargi, Bansagar and Khandwa the face of poor Madhya Pradesh would have been transformed. Droughts would have been averted and peoples' incomes would have doubled to the levels of the Punjab. The tragedy is that they spent 75 per cent of the funds on each project and yet the farmers did not benefit.

The lesson from this story is simple: we, as citizens, must work relentlessly to minimise the power of public servants in a democracy. It is evil behaviour of this sort that resulted in the collapse of communism. It is nastiness of this variety that has driven countries across the globe to privatise their economies. If the Narmada Valley Development Authority of Madhya Pradesh had behaved like a private company, it would have been accountable to shareholders and lenders for results. Nowhere will shareholders tolerate three incomplete projects without returns. I wonder if there is a way to enforce more accountability of irrigation projects by making beneficiaries behave like shareholders. Could we mobilise the Panchayati Raj and the Right of Information Act to this end? Politicians and bureaucrats will naturally oppose this reform as well. But let's always remember that good people, when they become public servants and have to deal with other peoples' money, become bad.


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