While talking to a very large community of project management professionals in Bangalore recently, it became obvious that the project management framework needs a thorough rethink.
The effects of the project, I had argued in 1981, start manifesting right from the stage of its conceptualisation, to its announcement, grounding and then later, implementation and completion.
Everybody knows that whenever a new irrigation project is designed, years before its implementation, through the leakage of inside information, the speculators and other opportunists buy land in the command area of the irrigation canal.
It happened in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and many other states. Naturally, the project managers don’t explicitly deal with these effects. Time has come for project managers in different domains to realise that Indian society is becoming extremely demanding.
The need for openness and transparency cannot be over-stressed. While the concept of public hearing does exist in some of the projects, demand for more openness, fairness and accountability is generally seen as cost escalating factor.
Naturally, if investors in large projects wish to have minimum costs and maximum speed, they would prefer a government that can coerce the popular will and mask ‘undesirable’ social effects.
Thankfully, such possibilities are becoming rarer, given democratic maturity of Indian society. The new land acquisition policy makes it even more clear that speculators and other interests cannot take advantage of information asymmetry among the people and the project proponents.
There are many other issues that project managers and investors need to take into account. Who are the major clients of any project? The obvious answer will be those pay for it. But in addition to the clients who pay, there are also clients who are made to pay without receiving any benefit.
The ones who suffer externalities also need to be taken into account, such as: nature, perfect stranger, communities and those neighbours in the case of infrastructure projects, whose property values go up or down depending upon the project. In the case of services, the knowledge produced may or may not be shared with those who contribute to it. The environmental effects are factored as a part of normal environmental impact assessments.
The methodology of these assessments, of course, needs considerable improvements in the light of contemporary understanding of ecological sciences. Thousands of hectares have been brought under various kinds of land development projects. Not even 0.001 per cent of the total la nd is left as such for in-situ conservation of biodiversity.
The constituency for nature is weak and that is why it is taking so long for such a policy to be institutionalised. The responsibility for perfect stranger, i.e. unknown and unknowable, is neglected even more. The preferences of future generation cannot be ascertained though they have to be anticipated.
Similarly, the accountability towards other non-human sentient being also has to be enforced. The place for the birds, squirrels, ants and the snakes has to be provided while designing projects.
Management of knowledge generated during the project is no less important if one has to reduce the learning costs.
Innovations are needed in not merely minimising adverse side effects but also for leveraging the knowledge of the people involved in the project or affected by it. A company based in Middle East wanted to sell cement to Iraq. The local contractors were aware of the security hazards and thus were not willing to make high rise buildings.
They at best wanted to make two or three-storey building to reduce the risk of damage due to bomb blast. They requested the company to scale down the strength of the cement. Without reducing the functional strength of three to five-storey building, the company could scale down the material properties, reduce the cost and make it more affordable. The solution became more inclusive without any loss to anyone. In every project, there is an opportunity to learn, grow and to share.
A project which does not generate any common or public knowledge or good has not really contributed to the advancement of the society. I hope that every project manager will try to expand accountability to nature, society, perfect strangers and communities of learners who can make the framework of design and implementation more innovative and inclusive.