It is not the money…

Ambiguous regulations compounded by opaque accountability — and not the lack of funds — must be blamed for delays in worthwhile projects.

It is one tradition that will not die easily: as North Block plans for its Budget presentation in February, claims on it for funds are made almost every day by one arm of the government or other. Till a few months ago, almost every department was talking the same language of fiscal prudence, the need to trim budgetary spends to the most efficient and necessary. As the new year gets underway and the fiscal year draws to a close, however, the clamour for more public money can be heard echoing in the corridors of North Block. So is it this year, with the Planning Commission now stretching out its hands for a larger share of budgetary allocations to complete the targets of the Eleventh Plan in its terminal year. What should North Block do?

At first glance, Mr Pranab Mukherjee may find it difficult to refuse. The Planning Commission, after all, oversees many core projects that would help economic growth and the government's flagship programmes for inclusion. The Plan panel's argument that the Eleventh Plan had been denied 20 per cent additional budgetary resources on account of such contingencies as the fiscal stimulus and subsidies and Sixth Pay Commission awards also appears reasonable. But it is not. The reasons for targets slipping do not lie in the lack of funds but in the dismal delivery mechanism that has become a hallmark of almost every public project all through every Plan. Innumerable reports by official agencies attest to the poor record of target fulfilment. Consider the power sector: the Eleventh Plan target of an addition of 78,577 MW in five years has been scaled down twice; the Planning Commission first reduced it to 62,000 MW and recently, the Power Ministry expressed doubts about that too, suggesting a more modest 55,000 MW. And why have there been delays or cutbacks in targets? The Plan panel and Power Ministry blame shortages of equipment and technical glitches, but the latter is just a euphemism for land acquisition and environment clearance issues. The Economic Survey last year dolefully noted a poor record of road contracts under the National Highway Development Programme. Similarly, in primary education for instance, funds are not the problem so much as the quality of education, with school drop-out rates still far too high.

Unlike the past, lack of funds cannot be blamed for tardiness in, or absence of, worthwhile projects. The causes lie in the “eco-system” of arcane or ambiguous regulations and opaque accountability; so long as that does not change, targets will remain elusive.

Published on January 31, 2011
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