A few weeks ago, I travelled to Gujarat to attend the project launch workshop for the second Gujarat State Highway Project (GSHP-II). It is a return visit to Gujarat after my last visit in 2008. I was the task team leader for the first Gujarat State Highway Project (GSHP) during 2005-2008, so I knew the state quite well and I expected to see a lot of changes during this new visit. But when I got there, I was still surprised.
Our team first went on a site visit first. We passed one road section which was improved in 2006 under the GSHP. The road will looked new. My colleague Arnab Bandyopadhyay, who is the Project Leader for GSHP-II, asked the engineers from the Roads and Buildings Department (R&BD) whether they have rehabilitated the road recently. The answer was no. “You must be kidding,” I said to them. “How can an 8-year old road still look so new?” But they were very firm. “No. We have not done any new works on those GSHP roads since they were constructed.”
On the second day, while we were standing outside the R&BD office in Gandhinagar (the center of the state administration), I saw a large 4-story building right in front of the R&BD office building. “Oh, yes, this and another one behind are new buildings,” the chief engineer of R&BD responded to my inquiry, “and actually they were completed within 8 months.” “Only 8 months?” I cannot believe what he said, “Are you kidding me? It cannot be done so fast in India.” But he was very firm. He counted his fingers, saying “yes, from awarding the contract to move-in, 8 months in total.”
The next day morning, we had a project review meeting with each contractor. One common question we asked to every contractor was how long it took for them to get payments after they submitted invoices. “About four days” the first contractor answered. “Are you kidding me?” I said to them. “No, sir.” the contractor replied, after checking with his engineers and his accountant. One by one, all eight contractors said the same thing: 3 or 4 days. “This was really super!” I said to myself. Delay in contractor’s payments was a big problem in India before. Sometimes it took weeks or even months for the contractors to receive their payments.
Our last day in Gujarat was the project launch workshop. After a beautiful traditional lighting ceremony and speeches by R&BD minister, R&BD secretary, and other leaders, a training workshop was provided by World Bank experts on various topics related to the project. Participants include R&BD engineers, contractors, consultants, and NGO representatives. It is a classic World Bank training workshop, but there was still something that surprised me. I remembered that in the past, at this kind of occasions when senior officials were present, R&BD engineers normally kept quiet, and they would not stand up and speak out without being called by those officials. This time, however, many R&BD engineers (including junior engineers) raised their hands to question or comment. There were thus very good interactions between Bank experts and audience. From their questions and comments and from their confidence in speaking, I could feel the quality of R&BD engineers has improved enormously, particularly compared to 9 years ago when I first visited Gujarat.
By the end of the workshop, I started to realize that the R&BD has been significantly transformed from a traditional public works department, which executed government funded projects in a very slow and poor quality manner, to a new type of government agency that can effectively and efficiently plan, deliver and manage high quality road infrastructure and services. (See details in a World Bank publication, Institutional Development and Good Governance in the Highway Sector – Learning from Gujarat).
On my way back to Delhi, I was told by my colleagues that similar transformations have been taking place in some other Indian states in recent years. “You may feel you are kidded again when you visit other states,” my colleagues joked to me.