Prashant Bhushan says large projects mean large kickbacks

As the State government justifies development through mega, multi-crore infrastructure projects, Prashant Bhushan, civil rights lawyer and crusader against corruption, wonders whom these projects are meant for.

His question, during an interview with The Hindu in his hotel room here, comes in the backdrop of the projected displacement of people for the proposed Rs. 1.18-lakh-crore High-Speed Rail Corridor across the State, privatisation of drinking water supply by setting up a company modelled on Cochin International Airport Ltd., takeover of paddy lands and wetlands in Aranmula for building a controversial private greenfield airport, all amid a severe drought-like situation in the State and the malnutrition deaths of children in Attappady.

Mr. Bhushan, a senior Supreme Court lawyer and architect of the 2G Spectrum public interest litigation case, which rocked the United Progressive Alliance government and led to the Supreme Court ruling that natural resources were public assets and cancellation of 122 2G licences, said not even a “single public private partnership truly in public interest” existed.

“The development model introduced in Kerala, rich with natural resources, is not sustainable. This is a State where governments in the past, primarily the Left, have emphasised public spending and education. People are interested in getting clean water, health, education, electricity and a roof over their heads. Large projects mean large kickbacks,” he said.

Luring phrases

He asked who exactly the government had in mind when it launched large projects designed by foreign investors, who lured them with “nice phrases like GDP [Gross Domestic Project] growth, reforms and soft loans.”

“This is a situation where the public’s money, land and assets are used to fund large projects to increase the profits of private corporations, all in the name of GDP growth. The proof that this model of development is not working is seen in India’s steadily declining rank in the Human Development Index, especially in the field of nutrition,” Mr. Bhushan, who was here to inaugurate a protest against the rail corridor organised at the District Collectorate, said.

As example, he referred to Enron’s Dabhol power plant in Maharashtra, a joint venture with the government, which collapsed when the cost of power shot up to Rs. 7 a unit.

“Look at the Sardar Sarovar dam project; it ended up costing 10 times more and brought in merely 10 per cent of the projected benefits. Instead, if we had invested in micro-watershed development along the Narmada river, it would have cost only one-tenth the cost of the giant dam and benefited the people living on its banks,” he said.

“GDP growth, reforms, soft loans are euphemisms introduced by foreign investors to exploit public resources for private profits. So what happens in large projects is somebody will take loans, somebody else will be paid huge kickbacks and, the common man, straddled with huge debts, will be left carrying the baby,” Mr. Bhushan said.

Independent agency

He emphasised the need for an independent investigating agency, considering the extent of scams surrounding the use of natural resources.

Speaking on the proposal to frame a law to provide the Central Bureau of Investigation with functional autonomy and independence, he said it could end up as a “farce.”

“In fact, it may be more farcical than the Jan Lokpal Bill of the government, considering the people involved in the Group of Ministers looking into the issue,” Mr. Bhushan said.

“Ideally, the CBI should be set free of the administrative control the government has over its day-to-day functioning. This includes transfers, promotions and even post-retirement jobs. Second, the agency should not be financially dependent on the government,” he said.

On the Aam Aadmi Party, of which he is a national executive member, as a political alternative in Kerala, he said: “It will take some time for people in a State where political space is occupied largely by two major parties to get out of that mode.”

“As ever, our party believes in continuous engagement of the people with governance,” he said.

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