Beyond Accidents: The Call for Institutional Reform in Infrastructure

T K Arun

Infrastructure development is not just about building it. It requires governance standards and political financing benchmarks to evolve.

The primitive man’s response to a disaster that killed and maimed members of the community was to propitiate the god, whose putative wrath had presumably brought on the disaster, and hope, thereby, to avert its recurrence.

Primitive men did not have airports, bridges and other large built structures, whose collapse could cause death and destruction. When such collapse does happen, the modern response cannot be to invoke forces beyond human control, such as the rains, make alternative arrangements to tide over the disruption caused by the collapse, and hope for the best.

Causes must be identified, accountability fixed, and remedial measures baked into systems for allocating responsibility, building and maintenance codes, regulation and inspection.

Will Anyone Own Up?

The roof over the approach to the entry and exit gates, where cars and buses deposit and collect passengers, and, space permitting, park, has collapsed at three different airports in the recent past — at Jabalpur, Rajkot and New Delhi. People have died, vehicles have been crushed. The government has announced compensation, but we have not seen the corporate owners of the Delhi airport or the Airport Authority that owns and operates the Jabalpur and Rajkot airports, take responsibility for the mishaps.

Nor have we seen the insurance regulator ask questions about the quality of inspections carried out on behalf of insurance companies. After all, payouts for accidents that were avoidable push up premiums for all those who buy insurance. Surely, the insurance regulator cannot be a passive spectator to manmade disasters.

True, in Delhi, the rain in the 24 hours preceding the roof collapse at Terminal 1 was three times as heavy as the average daily rainfall for decades. But can that, by itself, be sufficient explanation? No water collects on a sloping roof. The concave canopy over where cars park has a fixed and finite capacity up to which the water can fill, and excess water would spill over to the ground. And the canopy should be designed to carry the weight of the water it can hold, even if any drainpipes fitted into its sides are blocked.

Not Just Airports

It is not just airport canopies that collapse in India. Bridges fall by the dozen. Newly built roads develop cracks, including showpiece stretches such as on the Atal Setu in Mumbai. Even a piece of architecture touted as the embodiment of the spiritual aspirations of India’s devout millions leaks, and has its forecourt flooded, along with the approach roads.

Scientists quibble over whether we live in the Holocene or in a new geological era influenced to such an extent by human activity as to justify it being called the Anthropocene. Wherever that debate ends up, there is little doubt about the reality of climate change.

Climate Change Is Here

There is no climate denial in India’s policy circles. Rather, India has launched the International Solar Alliance and is a co-sponsor of the Coalition for Disaster Resistant Infrastructure. Climate change is not something that will strike in the far future, like a wayward asteroid. It is underway right now, and, helped along by an unusually strong El Nino phenomenon in the South Pacific, has raised the average global temperature this year nearly by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

Disaster resilient infrastructure is not something meant only for the new syllabus of engineering colleges or power-point presentations at international meets demanding money from the rich world for building climate adaptation in the Global South. It means designing all new structures to be built to withstand extreme climate events, and reinforcing every bit of existing infrastructure, prioritized by the degree of vulnerability. After all, people have to use existing infrastructure, and not just infrastructure yet to be made.

This is a macro layer of regulation that should modify all building codes, materials specifications, stress tests and extant computerized models for the purpose. Where do we stand on this?

Political financing leaves its mark

It is not as if norms are fixed, the problem would be solved. A pervasive factor that weakens infrastructure is reliance on systemic corruption to finance politics, which suborns governance, and every link in the chain of procedure to ensure adherence to norms.

India cannot become a developed country just by acquiring shiny new bits of modern infrastructure, even as standards of governance, key to making these bits of infrastructure work and meld into the rest of the economy, remain stuck in the shadows of a corrupt past.

That calls for a change of culture in corporate governance, in their oversight qua companies by the government, regulation of their conduct in the different spheres of their operation, particularly in areas of infrastructure services, in framing sensible rules and in compliance by the public at large.

Safety is not happenstance or divine favour, it is a product of modern institutions and engineering, of institutional integrity and a culture of accountability and adherence to norms.

Into that haven of freedom, my father, let my country awake!

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in Money Control as Not by Accident: World class airports and roads require institutional change on July 2, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.