The failing infrastructure of Meghalaya
By Patrick Kurbah
In the wee hours of Sunday, May 22, accountability of public money was stabbed once again in Meghalaya as the dome of the new assembly building at Mawdiangdiang collapsed. As officials and engineers cited technical reasons for the pitiable construction, perhaps to most citizens, it was also a symbolic collapse of the overall infrastructure in the state in recent years.
The new assembly building is therefore to be seen as the last nail in the coffin where even something, which directly concerns the legislators, could not be properly constructed. The PWD minister was nowhere to be seen. The assembly speaker, who before the media many times before to intimate the ‘successful’ progress of the building, went silent.
This, however is not a new phenomenon in Meghalaya. There are countless examples in the recent past which illustrate the health of governance in the state.
Recently, the ISBT project which was completed nearly a decade after it dare of sanction and was constructed by a sitting minister’s family firm — the Dhar Construction Company — the Rs. 48.31-crore project has already developed cracks within a year of completion. After all the hullabaloo of having the Home Minister of the country inaugurate it, there is no roadmap now on how to repair the infrastructure to bring it to a respectable form. Barring a few activists, no talks have been raked up otherwise on the accountability of the contractor. Moreover, officials and ministers, who would have visited the site in their red-beaconed vehicles during construction, did not bother to think on how the public would commute to-and-fro after the opening of the ISBT. Hence searching for transportation, battling the traffic and bargaining of fares have never been the experiences of VIPs in the state. How do they then understand the plight of the public who are being fleeced by mercenary taxi drivers.
The deputy chief minister of the state who is also the PWD minister-in-charge, went a step ahead to rule out the possibility for any probe into the poor quality construction and instead began assuring the public that the officers concerned would be punished for lapses. How does one figure out which officer is responsible for the lapse without a probe? Also, is the minister concerned not supposed to he held accountable? Did the project pass without his knowledge?
But this has been the model for deflecting responsibility in Meghalaya. “We are looking into the matter…”. “The issue is under consideration…”. “We will take steps to resolve the matter…”. These are common phrases that the public are told almost on a daily basis. There is no information provided to the public on issues which cause distress in their daily lives. No one knows at this moment what has happened to the new site for shifting the Mawlai Marten garbage dumping ground, even as garbage continues to pile up across the state. No one knows when the critical Dwar Ksuid bridge on the Shillong bypass will be completed, which broke down after inauguration. No one has examined why the infrastructure was left in a dilapidated manner during the Meghalaya Games. There is no talk on why the Ganol hydro power project — which was started in 2006 — has still not reached completion, in a situation where the state is still battling power-cuts from time-to-time. The list of examples are endless. The list of accountability is non-existent.
But even as we are talking about the failure of infrastructure in Meghalaya, it is quite strange how the current MDA dispensation relies on one spokesperson for defending criticism — the Chief Minister, and sometimes his deputy. The same dispensation goes all gala when it comes to good media publicity. Of course, there can be no room for excuses for the office of the topmost public servant in a state. But it is still quite surprising that in our state, after all that is going wrong across the sectors, only one person engages with the public constantly in a cabinet of 12 ministers. The others have minimum interaction with the public or the media. Going back to the Meghalaya Games for instance, the sports minister was nowhere to be seen. Not even a formal statement had come from the office of the minister. Again, throughout the ISBT saga, the CM bore the brunt of public ire. Are the remaining voices in the cabinet to be heard only before the elections? Will they take no accountability for their departments?
Such is the state of governance, politics and accountability in Meghalaya, which translates into the public infrastructure we see around us today. As the public is losing track of which politician moves to which party, the public is also losing track of how many projects have failed in the past and the number of promises that have gone unfulfilled. It is even more appalling that all of this is happening in the year before elections, which is supposedly a sacred year for politicians to suddenly bump up the pace of work for optics. Everything is falling apart even as we find a reason to celebrate 50 years of the state.
Coincidentally, ours is also a state which boasts of quite a few heritage structures, which have been standing strong and sturdy even after a century. Perhaps then, when it comes to new and modern infrastructure, the common man is compelled to think of the profit-driven motives, the siphoning of money, the internal nexus, the overlooking of conflicts-of-interest and the investment in public eyewash as the reasons for failure. But who is to take accountability when all that is happening is political mudslinging? Where does the public feature in the priority list? Has the common man been reduced to the count of a vote every five years?
It is opportune to end here with a quote of celebrated economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman: The government’s solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.
(The author is an independent legal consultant in Bengaluru)