I recently ended a two-month stay with my parents in Bhopal, India. Virtually everyone around our house is a retired senior bureaucrat; when in power they had allotted these properties to themselves for a pittance. When I arrived, the street in front of our house was a shambles, partly because that is the general state of Indian roads but made worse by the fact that the nearby highway was supposedly being renovated, so this small lane by default had turned into the “highway.” Incapable of handling all the trucks and buses, the street had become a pothole-ridden dirt road. A permanent cloud of dust settled a thick layer on everything inside our house. The food tasted crunchy and I took to constant coughing.
Living in a socialist country, one realizes very quickly that not a single thought ever occurs to the government about not externalizing costs. Not only are governments grossly incapable of doing any cost-benefit analysis, but externalization of costs massively worsens the situation. Roughly proper renovation of the road patch just in front of us would have cost no more than $500. My medical bill, which I cannot directly attribute to the dust, came to around the same amount. The physical harm to my old parents and the degradation of everything material inside the house will be much more costly. Lost lives and crippled limbs will be even costlier. Indian vehicles are in a sorry shape from the constant damage they receive. Time lost on Indian roads and the stress that creates present a massive bottleneck to the country’s economic growth.
Of course, the retired bureaucrats, who once held sway over the lives of tens of millions, were not going to take the state of the road in front of us lying down. They suddenly got a sense of what is right and wrong, mixed with a sense of hurt pride. The bureaucrats now in power once reported to these retired Babus. Alas, this is the mystery of corrupt systems. The juniors and children of the bureaucrats grow up learning corruption from their elders. The kids and juniors fail to learn that they should not be corrupt where their parents and seniors are concerned. That realization comes to these bureaucrats — if it ever comes — too late in life.
They threw a layer of dust on top and took some photographs. Bingo, the road had been repaired.
Their pleas to the ruling bureaucrats went unheard, but the retired bureaucrats still knew how to work the system. After about six months, a few trucks of unwashed gravel were dumped on the side of the road. Then, two months after that, a small brigade of road workers descended. This is when I arrived.
The brigade consisted of about five very sorry human-looking figures covered with tar, and a road-roller. During the next two days, they threw the unwashed gravel on the potholes, succeeding in covering only the middle half of the road. Then they ran the road-roller on top of it. With their bare hands, the workers then sprayed a very thin sheet of tar on top of the gravel, using a can with holes in it. They threw a layer of dust on top of this and took some photographs. Bingo, the road had been repaired.
Finally, to restrict heavy traffic from coming into the road, a metallic frame was installed at the junction, so that vehicles above a certain height could not pass. Unfortunately, however, there was no reflective paint of the metallic frame or anything to warn the incoming traffic. So a few nights later, it was crushed by a fast-moving bus or truck. We never found out whether someone had died. But if someone had, the death will never show up in the cost of road construction. No one in the government will ever be charged.
The gravel that had been laid started to come out soon enough, for there was not enough tar to hold it in place. Now there was more dust than ever. During rainy season these holes will become traps for motorbikes.
Despite the slow moving traffic, on average one person dies every day on Bhopal’s streets. Don’t ask how many get crippled or how much wealth gets wasted. You are living an illusion if you think that Indian bureaucrats will ever reflect on the fact that by trying to make some extra pennies in bribes they are killing human beings.
As expected, the highway, while blocked, is not actually being renovated. The contractor, having taken an advance from the government, can now sit on it and earn interest, delaying it as long as he can get away with it. When it is finally renovated, you can guess what it will look like. Of course if no bureaucrat has a personal stake in making a decent road, it will be worse than what my parents got.
And really the story of the Indian road is the story of virtually everything in India. Indians are today fighting for a bigger government. The irony is lost on them. Only a fool will consistently do more of what he has always done to change the predicament. Indians steeped in mysticism, hypocrisy, and dishonesty — all encouraged by decades of socialism — cannot see what a mess they have created for their own lives and for their kids. Alas, over the years, I have seen a continuous deterioration of social morals and increased corruption in my home country.