For representational purposes only.
For representational purposes only.

India's infrastructure crisis: Are WhatsApp forwards the new safety net?

These infrastructure projects were supposed to be showcase pieces for the country, costing taxpayers thousands of crores.

The first monsoon rain in Delhi caused the canopy at Terminal 1 of the airport to collapse, resulting in one death and many injuries. Similarly, the recently constructed canopies at Rajkot, Jabalpur, and Guwahati airports have also collapsed because of serious structural issues, despite being built at a high cost. Reports have shown that the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi was flooded, causing critical operations to be postponed.

In just nine days, five newly built or under construction bridges have collapsed in Bihar and more may follow by the time this article is published. Let’s not forget the collapse of a flyover in Gujarat a few months ago, which claimed over 120 lives. These infrastructure projects were supposed to be showcase pieces for the country, costing taxpayers thousands of crores.

According to estimates, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) will have to allocate more than Rs 30,000 crore towards paying off its debts in the fiscal year 2024. This staggering number is expected to peak at Rs 62,000 crore in FY28. The NHAI’s debt has seen a significant increase from Rs 24,188 crore in FY15 to an alarming Rs 3.48 trillion as of September 2023. In both FY21 and FY22, the highway developer took on massive loans, borrowing close to Rs 65,000 crore and Rs 76,000 crore, respectively.

Experts predict that if this trend continues, the NHAI’s total debt could surpass an astronomical `4 trillion. This financial burden casts a dark shadow over the future of the NHAI and begs for urgent measures to be taken for its resolution. Remember that Indian GDP is also around `4 trillion now. The same kind of investment is happening in railways, sea ports and airports.

At first glance, this appears to be a good thing. However, public investing in infrastructure should cause a rapid expansion in industrialisation and a significant increase in private investment. If this was happening, India would not be facing jobless growth and the unemployment figures would not have touched such astronomical figures. Apart from the huge debt that the government is incurring and is being serviced by our tax money, the public is also paying ridiculous amounts of taxes for using the same infrastructure through fuel cess, road taxes and so on.

The story is worse when it comes to the Railways. All the concessions like senior citizens’ concession, children’s concession, etc. have been withdrawn. The railways have reduced the number of unreserved compartments resulting in an unprecedented crowding in reserved compartments by ticketless travellers who can’t afford showpiece fancy trains like Vande Bharats. Recently, the Bombay High Court said it was ashamed to see commuters forced to travel like cattle in the Mumbai local trains. Around 2,500 people die every year in the Mumbai local train accidents.

The accidents in Indian Railways continue to happen at regular intervals despite huge investments in safety measures. Airports have been privatised and one business house has monopolised most of them. The parking fee, user fee, etc. have gone through the roof with no visible improvement in services. It seems that only a few people who have managed to get monopolies in toll collections, railway contracts, road building and toll collections, and airport and sea port operations are minting money in our system.

Now, prayer is the only resort for the common man. In case you are planning to visit Ayodhya to pray, be warned that the temple roof is also leaking and the Ram Path, the much-touted pathway to the temple, is filled with massive potholes and has been partially washed away.

The more India appears to change, the more it remains the same. In India, corruption, nepotism and favouritism have long been prevalent. In the past, there were at least debates over these issues. Newspapers used to question both state and Union governments about apparent corruption and push for corrective actions. Corruption charges used to bring down governments. Those days are now a distant memory.

Now, despite the crumbling roads, filthy streets, paper leaks, roof leaks, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty, communal and caste issues, and countless such third-world problems, the thought that Indian billionaires are making a killing and killing it in the international fortune list is enough to give us a patriotic glow.

This can change if we start questioning the authorities again and not swallowing the public relations stunts they dole out. The new Parliament building has been built at a considerable cost and hopefully with decent quality, and the same can be ideally put to use for debating about issues that really concern the people.

But that is too much work and too much to ask. So if you have a choice of staying at home and watching countless WhatsApp forwards about how India has changed and is shining, glowing and sparkling, choose it, for it will keep you safe in these times of falling airport roofs and flooding hospitals. Those who don’t have that luxury will travel packed like cattle, pay taxes and then pay tolls and service fee to private players for using public facilities, and if God willing, will reach their destinations in one piece. Faith is a wonderful thing for the rulers and the ruled in a country that runs ‘Ram bharose’.

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

The New Indian Express