Mumbai's Infrastructure Woes: Why Can’t Maharashtra Replicate RC Sinha’s Achievements of the 1990s?
On 4th March, the Union minister for road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, released the biography of RC Sinha, an unconventional bureaucrat and nationalist, whose innovative thinking significantly impacted India's infrastructure development in the 1990s. The book, titled Transforming India from Within, highlights the potential impact that a determined, honest, smart and proactive bureaucrat can have on the nation.
 
In an era where cynicism towards politicians, bankers, judges, bureaucrats, investigative agencies and the media is justifiably rampant, this biography tells the story of a rare official who defied red tape and risked his career to deliver groundbreaking infrastructure projects.
 
Mr Sinha joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 1962. Many may be unfamiliar with his transformative work in the last three decades of the 20th century due to the absence of social media and widespread internet access. However, comparing his achievements in that period with today's developments provides valuable insight.
 
Mumbai serves as a prime example for this comparison. The city currently faces numerous construction projects and dangerously high pollution levels due to metro rail development, coastal road construction, entry and exit routes to the Mumbai trans-harbour link (MTHL), road concreting work, extensive redevelopment efforts and other road repairs.
 
Flashback to 20th Century: Let's rewind to 1995 when the Madhav Jog committee proposed 55 flyovers in Mumbai, the Bandra-Worli Sea-link, and an expressway connecting Mumbai and Pune akin to Germany's Autobahn. At that time, people were concerned about potential disruptions since even road-concreting jobs were completed in Mumbai at a snail’s pace.
 
 
When Maharashtra's government invited bids for the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, only the Reliance group responded with a bid of Rs3,200 crore (a substantial sum at that time), while requesting 78 additional concessions. The planned route between Panvel (a distant suburb) and Dehu Road (near Pune) would have caused chaos and traffic congestion at both ends. This situation raised concerns over the high cost and implementation.
 
The BJP-Shiv Sena government, with Manohar Joshi as chief minister and Nitin Gadkari as minister for public works department, took some radical decisions. They established the Maharashtra state road development corporation (MSRDC) to manage these projects and appointed RC Sinha, who was known for his transformational work in creating a new city, Navi Mumbai, under CIDCO (City Industrial Development Corporation), to head it.
 
Funding for the Expressway was to come from non-convertible debentures (NCDs); hence, it required better accountability, careful planning, transparency, dedication to deadlines and a tight budget. Mr Sinha was given the freedom to overcome a plethora of hurdles, challenges and petitions but asked to complete the project in 36 months. This demanded imaginative thinking in planning, tendering, concession agreements, compensation policies, technology, equipment, payments and incentives.
 
The book details how this engineering marvel redefined connectivity between Mumbai and Pune and within Mumbai too. Constructed at a cost of Rs1,600 crore – Rs50 crore below MSRDC's estimates – it was half the price of Reliance's bid and without their 78 concessions. The Expressway became a blueprint for ambitious new highways and expressways; however, subsequent projects have repeatedly missed deadlines and underperformed on quality, despite rapid advances in technology and construction material.
 
Additionally, 40 high-quality flyovers were built in Mumbai, most completed ahead of schedule without cost overruns. Around then, there was a change in government and, despite his stupendous success, Mr Sinha was moved out of MSRDC. The book records that this happened when he refused to consider Ajit Gulabchand's Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) as a potential bidder for the 5.6-kilometre, cable-stayed Worli Bandra Sea-link bridge, since it did not meet technical requirements.
 
Under Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) control, Mr Sinha was threatened with job loss unless HCC was considered; but he refused to budge. The Worli-Bandra Sea-link took 10 years to complete instead of the planned 36 months and cost Rs1,634 crore rather than Rs400 crore, after repeated cost-escalations  and time-overruns which have become synonymous with India's infrastructure since the late-20th century.
 
Fast-forward to the 21st Century  
Mr Sinha’s achievements in the previous century appear daunting for Maharashtra to emulate or replicate a good 24 years into the next century and the phenomenal advancements in design, technology, computerisation, telecommunications, equipment, materials and availability of finance.
 
The Gokhale Bridge, a crucial connector at Andheri dismantled six years ago, exemplifies the abysmal decline in standards and public expectations from the government and its departments. Declared unsafe in 2020, the Bridge was reconstructed and opened at February-end. However, it was then discovered that Gokhale Bridge could not connect to both sides of the Burfiwala flyover – built specifically for easing transit to distant suburbs. The reason? A glaring 2.2-metre gap in alignment that was apparently not discovered until the re-opening.
 
 
Instead, with perfect nonchalance, the chief engineer bridges, of the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC), issued a statement that a consultant would provide a strategy to ‘connect the bridges’ and this will be taken up in phase-2 of the project which would be completed by the end of 2024. He was also quick to transfer responsibility to the railways which, in 2021, informed BMC that it needed to maintain overhead clearance of six metres following which the bridge was redesigned with a gap. 
 
If BMC is to be believed, nobody noticed the alignment issue while re-working the design at a time when technology could have allowed full modelling of both bridges with virtual traffic estimation. BMC’s brazen explanation lists nine reasons why the bridges cannot be connected and subsequent media reports suggest that Burfiwala flyover may have to be demolished and rebuilt. This means continued traffic disruptions in an overcrowded area and duplication of construction costs; worse still, it imposes significant costs on Mumbai's people through traumatic and polluting commutes.
 
Gokhale Bridge is now the subject of memes, stand-up comic jokes and public anger, but no heads have rolled or inquiry initiated. Strangely enough, all political parties, especially the Opposition in Mumbai, seem unconcerned even as Maharashtra faces municipal, state and Central elections. There is a reason why the Gokhale Bridge fiasco has not led to inquiry and action. We, as citizens, have forgotten to hold governments accountable and to demand quality. 
 
The Legacy
Mr Sinha's legacy in transforming infrastructure projects extends to his work in Andhra Pradesh, Goa and other states. His stint as vice-chairman and managing director of CIDCO turned Vashi/Navi Mumbai into a counter-magnet to Mumbai. CIDCO was considered a graveyard for good officers and he started out having to find ways to pay salaries since the organisation was almost bankrupt. From there, he went on to revitalise and build a city, ensure railway connectivity with modern stations and create the successful Seawood Estates for non-resident Indians, sparking a property boom in the twin-city.
 
 
But his life story is not about infrastructure development alone. It extends far beyond the concrete and steel he helped shape and lies in the countless lives his work has touched – particularly in the drought- and famine-prone districts of Maharashtra. At All India Radio, he made FM radio a reality in 1977. When posted at the loss-making Maharashtra state road transport corporation (MSRTC) he made the organisation profitable and introduced the famous Asiad bus service between Mumbai and Pune every half hour, in the face of enormous opposition by the taxi unions. His story demonstrates the potential of government when honest, passionate and imaginative officers are given opportunities to drive development. A dozen more like him could have sparked transformational change in India long ago.
 
 
 
 
 
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