The slab that fell (and the story it told)

Black of grackles glints purple as, wheeling in sun-glare,
The flock splays away to pepper the blueness of distance.
Soon they are lost in the tracklessness of air.
I watch them go. I stand in my trance.
Another year gone... 

Am reminded, all of a sudden, of this poem by Robert Penn Warren. 2021 is flickering to a close. Unless something extraordinary happens, my last report for 2021 is done. And I am looking forward to going off the internet, kicking the phone aside, and spending the next ten or so days in relative isolation, reading for pleasure. As in the past, seeking enchantment, I have returned to reading on evolution. I read Metazoa, to grasp how sentience developed in the early life-forms. And then, casting the net farther back in time, trying to understand how life itself began, I read Seven Clues To The Origin of Life. Next up, Nick Lane’s The Vital Question. And then, we will see.

2021 has not been a good year. I have lost two wonderful friends — Debjeet Sarangi and Anirban Bora. The world has also lost gentle, erudite Keshav Desiraju. Mythili Sivaraman passed away as well. Professionally too, in terms of work done, the year has been subpar. A lot of relatively analytic reports, almost all of them on energy — the year started with Coal, moved to Solar, Net Zero and then the warps and wefts of our energy transition — but almost nothing investigative.

Much of the year passed in this welter, one of knowing the work is nowhere near what it needs to be. I have to do a better job of balancing the two in 2022.

On now to the report I filed — about Lakshadweep and DDDNH administrator Praful Patel.

The news leaked late on the night of August 19 this year.

A slab had collapsed at the Namo Medical Education and Research Centre, a medical college and hostel being built at Silvassa by Praful Patel, administrator of the combined Union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu.

Word had taken time to trickle out. “The slab fell around three in the morning,” a local reporter told The Wire. “No one was told. And then, a local leader of the LJP (Lok Janashakti Party) went there and got a photo.” By the next morning, pictures of the site were in wider circulation

It was a puzzling event. Barring strikingly bad design or construction, as a bureaucrat in the Union Territory administration told this reporter, slabs do not fall during construction. Making things odder yet, the slab had fallen in a UT whose administrator has a background in civil construction and, furthermore, is known for pushing projects. As an IAS officer in Diu had told The Wire in May, “The first thing he does on reaching a new place is to ask, ‘What are the pending construction projects?’”

A key aide of Narendra Modi when he was chief minister, Praful Patel was made Daman & Diu administrator when Modi became prime minister in 2014 and heads the joint UT. He was also placed in charge of Lakshadweep last year.

There were other aspects about the Silvassa collapse that were even odder. For a government project, the local Public Works Department did not have much of a role. The Namo Medical Education and Research Centre had been designed by none other than HCP Design, Planning and Management, the architectural firm owned by Bimal Patel, who has worked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship architectural projects like the Sabarmati riverfront and the Vishwanath Dham redevelopment at Varanasi, and now the controversial redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi.

Project construction was being monitored by Torsion Engineers & Consultants, an Ahmedabad-based firm. Construction had been entrusted to Shanti Construction, also headquartered in Ahmedabad. Both Shanti and Torsion had incorporated themselves into LLPs in the same year after winning their respective tenders. The first became Shanti Procon LLP on April 27, 2020. The second on November 5, 2020.

In the past, Patel has called his civil construction drive ‘developmentalism’ and labelled critics as “vested interests”. When the slab fell, it created a crack through which this claim could be tested. And so, this report took a look at the mechanics of civil construction under him. Do read.

One response to “The slab that fell (and the story it told)”

  1. Patrick de Jacquelot

    Shekhar, well, let’s hope next year will be a better one! Your piece about Praful Patel was very much an investigative one, was it not?

    Best wishes for the New Year for you and your family

    Patrick de Jacquelot mobile: +33 6 86 74 87 08

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.”

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,”

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society