Monday, April 27, 2015

Big on projects, short on implementation

A CAG Performance Audit of the Tourism & Civil Aviation finds it wanting in project preparation, implementation, financial management, monitoring…

Construction seems to be the only engagement which excites the Tourism & Civil Aviation Department; so much so that even as the Department spends crores on infrastructure building, it remains oblivious to the task of putting them to use. A Performance Audit of the Department, covering the period 2009 to 2014, carried out by the office of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India underlines that while the Department undertook extensive infrastructure building projects, it remained weak following through on these projects and in areas of policy and project implementation and advertisement and publicity. Awards and tourists are already thronging to Sikkim and if in the present term of government [this performance audit covers the last term of SDF government], the Department was to become more serious about policy-framing and became more judicious in implementation, tourism stands a good chance of reaching still higher levels. But before that can happen, the Department will need to learn from its rather inept pursuit of tourism promotion thus far.
The Department’s askew priorities, in which commissioning is more important than implementation, becomes apparent in how it has handled the State Tourism Policy, STP for short. To begin with, the STP was prepared only in 2010, a full eight years after the National Tourism Policy was drawn up. On paper, the STP aimed to enhance employment potential and foster economic integration through linkages with other sectors. This Policy was to be updated every two years, but remains forgotten and has neither been revisited nor updated since. When queried by CAG auditors, the Department informed in September 2014 that the task of updating the STP had been started.
The updating process will be interesting, because the Department had not even constituted a Sikkim Tourism Advisory Committee, envisaged in the STP as the highest body to advise the Government on matters related to tourism, review policy implementation and its impact. The STAC was to do this on an annual basis since the STP was formulated, but has not even been constituted yet.
Maybe the Department ignored the STP because shortly after, in June 2011, a Singapore-based firm submitted the Sikkim Tourism Master Plan commissioned by the Department. But that cannot be, because as of September 2014, even this Master Plan had not been put to any effective use. When this was pointed out, the Department, in Sept 2014, informed CAG that the STMP prepared by the Singapore firm, in June 2011, was “under study for its effective implementation based on strategic requirements of the State to the extent of availability of resources”.
Interestingly, despite not having done anything with a tourism policy or a master plan for four years, the Department, in July 2014, was proposing to engage local consultants to prepare a master plan for Sikkim. This, when the Union Ministry of Tourism appointed Tata Consultancy Service to prepare a Master Plan for NE States including Sikkim.
The Department’s reluctance to abide by a prescribed policy or implement a master plan would not have worried if planning, implementation and coordination had been smooth on ground. But that is not the case as illustrated by a slew of wasted and idle projects included in the CAG’s performance audit of the Tourism & Civil Aviation Department. A wayside amenity constructed at Gnathang remains unutilized because it has neither water nor electricity supply. Namsing waterfall developed as a tourist spot on North Sikkim Highway receives no tourists because it does not have parking facilities.
There is much that slips between project preparation and project implementation at the Department as is seen in how projects to the tune of Rs. 9 crores were stalled because either forest clearance was not secured advance or negotiations with the land owners not closed in time. In one case, a cafeteria has been constructed without a clear title of land due to which the landowner has been using the property without paying the department anything.
The most ridiculous mismanagement would however be the wayside amenity constructed at Thanka in East Sikkim. The Department, it appears, is unaware of the date of creation of this asset, its cost of status of land. As a result, this property has been lying idle since completion “approximately” ten years ago. It appears that these amenities were constructed based on NOC or promissory land donation notes from land owners which the Department has since misplaced.
It is not as if the Department only constructs without having acquired land, there has been a case where it has purchased land without any plan for it! The CAG report informs that in March 2009, the Department purchased 5.2220 hectares of land valuing Rs. 1.65 crore in Tingda in North Sikkim. As of September 2014, it had not conceived any project for the land. Physical verification of the land revealed that 70% of it was on a slope and thus not suitable for construction and also lacked connectivity since a tract of private land lay in between the acquired land and the nearest road.
Delays are common when it comes to project completion, and Tourism Department in no different in this regard, with 56 of the 157 projects being implemented by the Department completed. Even these completed works recorded delays ranging from four to eight months beyond the stipulated time. Of the projects still under implementation, 50 had already exceeded their deadlines by six to twenty months.
In an ideal scenario, timely completion of projects will result in timely reaping of intended benefits, but in the hands of the Tourism Department, completion is no guarantee for utilization. The CAG auditors test-check utilization of 40 assets created by the Department and found out that eight have been lying idle since creation. The most staggering waste will have to be Jurrasic Park constructed at the cost of Rs. 487 lakhs in Samdong in East Sikkim in 2009. As of September 2014, it had been lying idle for five years.
And then there are the cases where infrastructure developed for “tourism purposes” were being utilized for non-tourism purposes. The CAG Report makes mention of five such “assets” involving central grants to the tune of Rs. 16.43 crore which were proposed for tourism but were instead housing government offices. The most surprising of such diversion is the Department’s head office in Gangtok which was supposed to be a “Tourist Complex” developed at the cost of Rs. 13.08 crore.
Advertisement and publicity also figure too low in the list of priorities and engagements at the Department and this is proven by the erratic manner in which funds were spent in this segment between 2009 and 2014. Where Rs. 1.09 crore was paid out for advertisement and publicity in 2009-10, in 2013-14, this was a paltry Rs. 5.99 lakh. Need more be said?
The Department also has a responsibility towards monitoring and evaluation of services being extended to tourists in Sikkim. Towards this end, the Sikkim Registration of Tourist Trade Rules was notified in 2008 envisaging identification, registration, cancellation and inspection of tourism service providers. The Department could not be bothered with implementation as is revealed by the huge mismatch between figures for hotels, restaurants and travel agents available with the Department and those registered with municipal bodies. In East Sikkim for instance, the Department had records of 222 hotels even as the municipal bodies had 497, or the 27 restaurants/ cafeterias recorded with the Department in East district against the 334 registered with the municipal bodies. Clearly, in the absence of basic data, ensuring compliance with the rules was not feasible, and not even attempted since the Department never made an inspection to check against overcharging by hotels.
In conclusion, the CAG Report recommends that the State strengthen its project preparation process, execution, financial management, monitoring etc in order to fully harness the tourism potential of the State. The performance audit, as mentioned earlier, covers a neat block of time – a full term of government from 2009 to 2014 – and should ideally be used as a checklist to inform how the Department proceeds through the current term of government. If the weaknesses pointed out in the report are worked on and if basic recommendations like going back to the tourism master plan and moving ahead with better purpose are followed, Sikkim Tourism can deliver much better economic returns for a much wider section of the Sikkimese population.

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