The Nashipur syndrome

During the Railway budget speech of February 26, 2001, Mamata Banerjee announced: “Considering the long-standing demand of the people of Murshidabad and the need for development in this area, I am happy to announce that restoration work of Nashipur-Jiaganj Azimganj railway line will be taken up during the year 2001-2002. Separately a survey work for construction of a bridge over the Bhagirathi to connect these two will also be undertaken.”

Someone recently asked me when the work on the Nashipur railway bridge would be completed. I have no idea. For those who do not know about West Bengal’s geography, with a bridge across River Bhagirathi, this will connect railway stations of Murshidabad and Azimganj, and reduce travel time between north and south Bengal. Such a bridge and a narrow gauge line existed during the British period.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

In 2001, the project was estimated to cost Rs90 crore. A foundation stone for the bridge was laid in 2004 and the line/bridge was to be inaugurated in 2010. Then, the problems started. Though land had already been acquired, more claimants surfaced. They wanted more compensation, they wanted jobs. Eighteen years down the line from 2001, the project has not been completed, yet.

The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) has a list (January 2019) which shows status of infrastructure projects costing more than Rs150 crore. There are 1,423 projects in this list. Most of them are from road transport and highways (603) or the Railways (366). If the original cost of a project is more or less identical to final cost of the project, all is probably well with the project. Those 603 projects of road transport and highways were originally estimated to cost Rs4,09,808 crore. They will cost Rs4,22,049 crore. However, the 366 railway projects were originally estimated to cost Rs4,85,586 crore, but will eventually cost Rs7,00,165 crore, if not more. Nashipur is not an outlier.

How long should an infrastructure project take? That is difficult to answer. Depends on the nature of the project, but five years might be a reasonable average. The average road project takes 4.7 years to complete. The average railway project takes 10.8 years. No wonder there are huge cost escalations in railway projects. Of the 1,423 projects, 787 projects cost more than Rs500 crore each. The average duration of an infrastructure project within this sub-category is 6.7 years. For the Railways, it is 11.3 years.

Let me now quote from a slightly old (No. 48 of 2015) report of Comptroller and Auditor General on the Railways. “Out of 442 ongoing projects, target for completion of projects was fixed for only 156 (35 per cent) projects. Even after fixation of targets, there was time overrun up to 16 years. Audit observed that 75 projects were ongoing for more than 15 years, and, of them, three projects were 30 years old. Out of 11 national projects, three projects were [in] ongoing [status] for more than 17 years and the remaining eight projects were in ongoing [status] for periods ranging from 4 to 11 years.”

This is not pretty. It is not enough to describe the Nashipur syndrome. How does one fix it? The answer is complicated because of silos in decision making in the Railways, complicated processes, 24 different implementing agencies, etc.

How about special focus on projects more than 15 years old? How about asking why an average South Eastern Railway project takes 14.8 years and why the average cost escalation in Northern Railway is 250 per cent?

Bibek Debroy is the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the prime minister.