The Political Economy of Infrastructure

Why are the roads so bumpy? Why aren’t sidewalks walking? Why is their sewage in the storm drain? For each of these questions, over the years we have heard technical answers and sometimes administrative explanations. Even when poor infrastructure causes accidental deaths, the government’s usual response is to announce a bailout and promise an investigation. And that ends the whole thing.

If the citizens know how the BPMP rehabilitates the road — by simply laying a layer of tar that can be washed away in the next rains — then is it possible that the 'engineers’ in the municipality don’t? If you and I see that the colorful drain covers the city is building are unusable as sidewalks, don’t the government officials know that? And what about responsible ministers? If this is the end what did they oversee?

There is an elephant in the room. There is an infrastructural political economy in the city and in other parts of the state. The fragile things we create are done so on purpose. They are not the result of accidental mistakes on the part of the project authorities. The right way of doing things is well known in every plan, but wrong options are always chosen for political reasons.

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Even a high school student knows that water flows well in a cylindrical drain, but our shoulder drains are all rectangular. Why is that? Because BBMP contractors don’t know how to make cylinders. In most cases they don’t even have engineering firms and very few can get a mold of a cylinder made in their own factory. They are the few guys who know how to pour cement between drain walls connected by small iron bars.

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Why does the municipality choose such contractors instead of genuine engineering firms? Because these contracts are part of a well-oiled system of kickbacks to those who grant the contracts — officials and political leaders. In many cases, companies are actually set up by decision makers using proxies. Also, poorly executed projects fall apart quickly and have to be re-tendered. That’s the plan.

Of course, we can choose the best contractors with engineering skills to build quality infrastructure. And it can ensure that there is no malpractice in the tender. But from top to bottom, those in charge are determined not to let these changes happen.

Roads, sidewalks, subways, flyovers, streetlights, bus stops, footbridges, speed bumps, dividers, parking lots, garbage trucks, collection centers — add them all up, except the drains, and imagine how big the universe is. Misguided, number of collaborators. The political economy of our infrastructure is so vast that its tentacles reach to the heart of the processes of choosing what we build and who builds it.

It is not just about executing projects. It is also in planning. Everyone knows that the development of the city requires an integrated plan. We need to have a way of integrating different modes of operation to deal with traffic problems. But we didn’t. How about not doing something that everyone knows we need? Political economy does not permit it. That’s it. If it is good for the town, the 'system’ will resist.

It was not deterred by occasional failures. The odd lake is rescued from squatters, some ill-conceived scheme is successfully resisted by local residents, and the courts sometimes stop the madness. But these are exceptions, while the long and steady assault on the city continues.

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Political economy is so big that it affects the real economy very badly. The quality of life in most neighborhoods is poor, and big businesses are increasingly looking to other cities. Citizens are trying to cope by moving to new places, but the suburbs are also unplanned and poorly built. As a result, chaotic propagation in all directions has been the norm for years now. Eventually, the city will swallow those places, like a boa meets a fleeing deer.

This is not the version of democracy and representative government we learn about in civics textbooks. This is what is on the ground in our town today. In fact, its shame is a challenge to citizens. Stop me if you can!’ That is what political economic leaders and forces say

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