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  • Building Urban Infrastructure:The Case of Prince’s Dock, Bombay
  • Robert Lewis (bio) and Matti Siemiatycki (bio)

In 1872, Sir John Strachey, the governor-general of India, was horrified to hear about the state of the finances of the recently completed Bombay province’s Government House at Gunnesh Khind in Pune. He was told that the cost in 1865 was estimated at 355,000 rupees and that the building would be completed in a couple of years. In 1869, however, costs were escalating out of control and building was proceeding at an alarmingly slow rate. The colonial government had already spent 960,181 rupees on the unfinished building, with the result that the “work had already progressed too far to render any stoppage possible.” A year earlier, Sir Stafford Northcote, the secretary of state for India, had written to Strachey’s predecessor, Sir John Lawrence, regretting that “your Government has practically set to nought the control which the government of India are by law required to exercise over expenditure of public money.” The letter continued with an outline of the various ways that the construction project had gone over costs and time. By the time it was finally completed in 1874, the building cost more than four times the 1867 estimate and was several years overdue.1

Gunnesh Khind was not unique. As one commentator noted, the “systematic and reckless disregard” for building on time and budget was “a malady extending all over India.2 Another opined that “it surely cannot be cause for surprise that Government works in India are hardly ever completed except at a considerable excess above the original estimates.”3 Similar stories were [End Page 722] found across the colonial world. The building of Singapore’s water supply system in the 1870s, for example, was 45 percent over budget and several years behind schedule, while the Suez Canal cost double its original estimate and took twelve years to complete.4 Cost and time overruns were also endemic outside the colonial world. From the nineteenth-century railroads in North America and Europe to the Sydney Opera House, many of the world’s iconic mega projects have been plagued by large financial and timing overruns.5 With few exceptions, large public infrastructures across the world have been completed late and substantially over budget. These outcomes have major social costs, including burdening governments with unexpected expenses, drawing resources away from other investment priorities, and reducing public trust in the capacity of governments to deliver public infrastructure. Indeed it is a paradox that while megaprojects have been an enduring policy choice in countries around the world and throughout history, their implementation has been endemically troubled. The unsuccessful development of megaprojects has made this a topic of critical importance for scholars of policy formulation and implementation.6

Despite an extensive literature on contemporary megaproject construction and the issue of cost overruns in particular, very little is known about these schemes in the colonial past.7 Scholarly work on colonial megaprojects focuses on the construction and implementation of projects. We know a great deal about how railroad and irrigation schemes incorporated agricultural areas into the broader imperial trading world, intensified the links between rural areas and cities, and created new urban hierarchies.8 Several works have assessed the origins, morphology, and labor politics of the new docks lining the waterfronts of expanding colonial cities.9 Scholars have also turned their attention to elucidating the ensemble of technologies, labor practices, institutions, and political practices that underpinned the development of publically funded sanitation regimes in colonial cities.10 The focus in all of this work has been on the reasons behind and the use of these material landscapes.

The question of the financial and political viability of large urban colonial megaprojects and the implications this has for an understanding of policy formulation remains neglected. What we do know tends to be focused on projects that have experienced noteworthy overruns, such as Gunnesh Khind, the Suez Canal, and the Singapore water supply system. With a few notable exceptions, little research has documented the conditions leading to scheme completion on time and on budget. This is especially the case with respect to the place-based dynamics...


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pp. 722-745
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