Creating ‘incentives’ for good roads in the city

Cities in India dread what the monsoon rains do to their roads. But why are our roads of such pathetic quality? And is there anything we can do to change the status quo?

India has one of the largest road networks in the world; yet, year after year, citizens bear the brunt of poor road quality, especially during the monsoons. From Mumbai to Guwahati, from Gurgaon to Bangalore the rains turn roads into rivers and when they do resurface, it is difficult to classify the ravaged, pothole-ridden stretches as roads!

This may be an annual affair but the quality of roads in Indian cities continues to remain poor due to lack of accountability mechanisms in place. Why does such a situation persist for years on end and what might it take to fix it?

The root of the matter

Various reasons explain the current state of Indian roads. The most obvious is the fact that municipal corporations build and/or upgrade roads weeks before the monsoon sets in, which means that parts of such roads get washed away in the first rains of the season.

Secondly, there is a one-size-fits-all approach followed while building roads, not taking into account factors such as the foundation of the road, gradient (slope), capacity and usage and so on. This means that many roads, which do not see much vehicular movement, are built conforming to standards much higher than what they need to meet, while many (or most) are much lower in quality than they should be.

Third, there is a lack of checks and balances in the system when it comes to civic infrastructure including roads, which is explained in further detail below.

Lastly, the design of roads is a concept which is still evolving in India. Let us take the example of Tender SURE roads in Bangalore, which have been confined to roads in the Central Business District. This reinforces the fact that well designed road infrastructure is seen and understood as a novel concept which is to be implemented only in select areas.

Further, these invariably come with lofty claims on design and quality that are often proven false once the road becomes operational. Again, taking the example of Church Street in Bangalore, we have seen how the roads – hailed as the golden standard for pedestrian-only roads and claiming to require no maintenance for years – are already crumbling following the monsoon rains.

Is there ever going to be a change in the narrative?

Of checks and balances

The lack of checks and balances in the planning and execution of civic infrastructure in India can be understood through an economic concept called incentives. Incentives (or disincentives) can make or break successful projects.

Imagine the following scenario: The government announces a project to relay roads in a particular area in Bangalore city. Following procedure, it floats a tender, awards the contract to the lowest bidder who executes the project. The contractor is then paid by the government after a check to see if the roads have indeed been built according to prescribed standards. In this entire scenario, none of the stakeholders – the government, the contractor, citizens – have any incentive (or disincentive) to ensure that the road is built in a proper manner.

The government showcases it as a way to show action in the face of elections, the contractor gets paid irrespective of the quality of work and the citizens in most cases seem satisfied with a new road (until the next rains!). This entire operation is very opaque and there is almost zero transparency in the process of building the road.

Now take the following scenario: The state government engages with municipalities and ward committees to decide which roads need to be built/upgraded. After consultations, the government opens bids for the selected project and the agreement includes quality checks by a team comprised of officials of the government as well as citizen group representatives. The payment to the contractor is based on and contingent upon the satisfactory execution of this agreement.

Alternatively, third party audits are a viable option. To ensure that there is no collusion in the quality check mechanism in the former option, such a system can be introduced where evaluating teams are randomly assigned to check on implementation. For example, a project implemented in Area X in a city would be evaluated by a team from Area Y and vice-versa. This assignment must be randomised for it to be successful.

In the above scenario, each stakeholder is incentivised or disincentivised in a way such that they are forced to work in public interest. Citizens are incentivised to participate in their area’s projects to improve implementation. The contractor is disincentivised from doing a shoddy job since his payments will be held back. Finally, the evaluating teams consisting of officials and citizen groups are also incentivised to evaluate projects in other areas in a fair manner, so as to ensure that projects in their area are evaluated fairly as well.

This entire process puts in place a system of checks and balances where each stakeholder has some skin in the game and is thus forced to put public interest ahead of private interest and ensure proper implementation of the project. Such a system can be expanded into multiple areas of civic projects such as waste management, infrastructure, service delivery and so on.

The key component in this system as well as the existing system is the active participation of citizens in the process which creates pressure on the government to act. While the current system has little or no incentive for citizens to participate, the alternative model suggested above will ensure that they do so due to the fairness and transparency which will be established.

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