It is a piece of welcome news that the Planning Commission (PC) has decided to be choosy while approving new development projects and allowing time and cost overruns of the existing projects. The PC's actions, reportedly, have come in the wake of the ongoing global financial turbulence. But, given the situation involving the formulation and implementation of development projects, the PC should have started a cautious approach long ago. An agency like the PC does not need to wait for the global financial crunch or anything like that to streamline the development project approval process.
The weaknesses of the public sector development activities are chronic. All concerned, including the government, are aware of the situation on the ground. Not that experts and private think tanks only have said volumes, suggesting what needs to be done to discipline the development activities. Both the chief executive of the government and the planning minister expressed their displeasure over time and cost overruns of development projects.
It, however, needs to be admitted that the PC alone cannot resolve the problems hurting the development activities, in terms of quality and speed. There are also some other players. Unless the ministries, divisions and some other agencies decide to play by the rules and strengthen their respective units dealing with project formulation and execution, the situation on the ground is likely to remain unchanged. The PC reportedly will make a stringent appraisal of costs and tenures of all development projects. The low-priority and less important projects will face special scrutiny. Accomplishing the stated objectives by the Commission might prove a daunting task. Every year, a good number of projects, including the large and priority ones, seek a hike in cost and extension of the execution period from the PC. On occasions, the Commission seeks clarification from the relevant implementing agencies, but, ultimately, permission is granted.
The PC will continue to face problems with the quality of development projects and their timely implementation until the basic weaknesses remain in place. Some small and medium development projects are need-based and those may not require a feasibility study. But feasibility studies must precede most other projects, particularly the cost-intensive ones. There are instances of dropping/ revising projects halfway through their execution because of flaws in designs or overlap. Then again, the rate of economic return with some projects being very low has often raised questions about their existence. The units responsible for planning and execution of development projects in various ministries and divisions are found to be weak and lacking in the necessary expertise and logistics. The selection of project directors and engaging them in multiple projects also poses a serious problem in the way of timely execution of projects. All these are old issues and relevant authorities are aware of them. Yet the situation has remained largely unchanged. Thus, how far the PC's latest move to streamline development project planning and execution would work remains to be seen. To achieve the desired results, there has to be a united approach, not piecemeal steps, from all fronts.