The Waiting Game Continues

For over four months now, the project team has found itself in a state of limbo awaiting a decision by the Housing and Urban Development Department (H&UD) in Bhubaneswar on whether or not the contracts for constructing the Sammaan facilities can be awarded to a Public Sector Unit (PSU) on a nomination basis. And that waiting game continues unabated.

There have been several posts written on this blog during this time attempting to convey any information possible, though much of this was speculatory and emotive: we simply haven’t had anything concrete to report leaving us in a position to simply share our feelings as project activities ground to a halt pending this potentially game-changing decision by senior government officials.

The experience has been unbearably frustrating, to say the least. There is zero clarity regarding what the review process entails, no tangible timelines provided to accurately gauge when a decision can be expected, and very little insight into who at the H&UD Department is actually working on the project. We are simply left in the dark and expected to patiently wait while the fate of three-years’ worth of effort hangs in the balance.

Over the course of these months, the project team has been cast in the unenviable role of taskmaster, bouncing from one government office to another in a desperate attempt to get any sort of updates possible, and often forced to take on responsibilities outside our purview in an effort to move matters forward. These are typically fruitless ventures, though, as we fall victim to the anfractuous bureaucracy in Odisha. A painful example of this revolved around transferring the land approval document (which clearly identifies the sites approved for constructing the Sammaan facilities) from the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation to the H&UD Department. The project team attempted to deliver this document but was informed that it needed to be routed through “formal channels”. Despite the offices being merely a few miles from each other, delivery of this document took over a month, during which time the entire review process was suspended with no rationale for such provided.

Beyond attempting to facilitate the transfer of documents and expediting project-related activities, the project team also faced numerous instances in which various government officials questioned the decisions made by their colleagues in other departments and put the onus of justifying these actions on the non-government partners. The most glaring, and distressing, of these being issues related to the funding sources identified for covering facility construction costs. Alarmingly, the project team was often asked to be the conduit for conversations between officials in dispute, leading to a near-endless routine of meeting one official to gather her or his feedback and then relaying such to the opposing official.

Given the challenges faced in gaining access to some of the government offices, securing the necessary meetings to take on this role of mouthpiece could take days, if not weeks. As with missing documentation, the review process would grind to a halt pending resolution of the issues raised. The frustrations caused by these inefficiencies led to desperate pleas for a formal review meeting to get all government officials involved in Project Sammaan in the same room to put to rest any and all issues pending the review and approval of the PSU.

After weeks of repeated requests, this meeting was finally scheduled and held at the H&UD offices in Bhubaneswar on October 24th. According to the government partners, there were effectively three main issues holding up the approval of the PSU: provisioning of funds, the PSU’s project management fee, and concerns revolving around the operations and maintenance strategy for the Sammaan facilities. Each issue was discussed and effectively resolved, with senior-most officials dismissing each in turn. At the end of the hour-long meeting, it was decided that the PSU’s approval would be granted by November 7th, at the latest.

Alas, November 7th has come and gone with no approvals given. The latest news is that the PSU cannot be awarded the contracts until the minutes from the October 24th meeting are compiled. This process typically takes 10-14 days, but for some reason these particular minutes are expected to take at least another week, meaning that simply recording and sharing discussion points from a meeting which lasted only an hour could take upwards of a month.

Truly maddening in all of this is the complete lack of consideration for the project’s timelines. In October 2013, a program officer at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation informed the team that he was “shocked” that the Sammaan facilities were not operational yet. More than a year later, we continue struggling to even get a contractor approved; at this point, the first facilities will not be online until mid-2015 at the absolute earliest.

Extrapolating the Sammaan experience to other sanitation initiatives in India, it is not surprising that the country continues to be the world’s largest culprit in terms of open-defecation and lack of access to sanitation for its citizenry. The local governments are stakeholders in Sammaan, and yet it could take us nearly four years simply to build toilets for communities that desperately need them. One can certainly speculate as to the reasons why this is, but the bottom line is that the crisis in India will continue until significant, wholesale changes are made to the process in which sanitation plans are implemented. In the meantime, countless thousands of lives will be needlessly and senselessly lost.

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