Slow motion development

Published: 29th August 2012 11:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2012 11:50 PM   |  A+A-

I had the opportunity to visit a few places in China over the past seven years. It has been quite amazing to see the rapid infrastructure development in terms of road, public transport system and, power and communication. All this, considering that China has just about 12 per cent more population than India.

There are many questions on why China has aggressively improved infrastructure — is it sheer patriotism or just vanity, is the quality good enough, is it an economic bubble about to burst? It is very clear that such an astounding infrastructure has certainly improved people’s quality of life. Among the grandeur of large scale infrastructure projects, the most vital part is the project management and execution capability. No matter how much money is spent, projects have to be completed on-time.

Just 10-15 years back, Chinese cities dreamt of becoming a Singapore. This reminds us of many chief ministers in India vouching to make their capital cities like Singapore. Right now, Shanghai has replaced Singapore as a model city. Can anyone miss the modern maglev train that touches over 400 kmph, connecting the city-center of Shanghai and the international airport? The next question is obviously why can’t we boast of even one city with a model superlative infrastructure?

During my interaction with a few locals in China, who were obviously proud of their city’s top class infrastructure, I learnt that ‘things simply happen’. Flyovers are built in record time and the metro is fully functional in a couple of years.

China has overtaken the USA to become the world’s largest expressway network of over 85,000 kms. When can we expect even half this distance in India? India’s prestigious Golden Quadrilateral project, covering 5,800 kms, which was declared as complete earlier this year, took almost 13 years to complete. Why does it take many years for us to build a few hundred-metre-long flyover? Even in a city like Bangalore, flyovers/underpasses take 4-5 years to complete. Even a small scale bus terminal takes seven years to complete. Of course, there will be many ‘valid’ reasons for the incessant delay and budget overruns.

A recent news report suggests that the Indian government has approved a model document for construction of highways to minimise time and cost overruns in road projects. We really need to wait and see if and when this would be implemented.

Fifteen cities in China are covered with the metro rail system and it is being constructed in another 15 more cities. The power ministry’s web page indicates that India has an installed electricity capacity of about 2 Lakh MW. China has built least five times more capacity.

If we look at communication, China has been way ahead of India in terms of rural tele density (Number of phones per hundred people). China has 500 million Internet users, which is again about five times more than India. In fact, China plans to add another 20 per cent over the next three years. No wonder, China does not consider India as a serious competitor. Instead, China tries to compare itself with the US in most areas. Why should India frown about this?

A World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report 2011-’12 shows that India’s gap with China is widening: the score difference between the two economies has increased six-fold between 2006 and today. The report also states that the Indian business community continues to cite infrastructure as the single biggest hindrance to doing business in the country.

While, India has witnessed significant improvement in infrastructure over the past decade, the progress has been rather slow and we have a long way to go when compared to China. Why? Is it technology, is it lack of funding or lack of will, or just lack of accountability in completing projects?

Corruption may not really be the reason, at least, as per Transparency International’s global corruption index that ranks both India and China among the highly-corrupt nations in the world. Hence, the most obvious answer is to attribute to India’s democratic political fabric that makes it quite difficult for aggressive policy-making and implementation. In contrast, China has a one-party communist political rule, which makes it easy to push through reforms. On communist rule, isn’t it intriguing to note that the infrastructure is much the same in West Bengal and Kerala, two states that have enjoyed communist rule for many years? Although, it is unfair to compare China with these states that still operate in India’s democratic framework, in terms of communist ideologies, China appears to have moved ahead with time while the Indian communists have stayed-put.

Political pundits opine that coalition governments will be the future of India. As we already witnessed, coalition compulsions enable smaller parties to have a huge say in national policy-making and thereby impeding the speed of decision making. This means ‘slow motion development’ will be India’s mantra. Most certainly, elections would be won for the next few decades solely based on such slow development. Sad, but this appears to be the truth.

India has demonstrated superlative capabilities in terms of software services or space research. Maybe some of the best practices could be adopted in providing predictable and aggressive basic infrastructure, be it energy, transportation or roads.

Timely completion of infrastructure projects is vital for the economy and of the general populace. Maybe the CAG should estimate the loss to the nation due to delayed completion of infrastructure projects over the past 10 years.

Finally, it boils down to the government’s willingness to take-up infrastructure projects, support execution by removing hurdles for on-time execution. The government should reward on-time execution and punish delays. This could also necessitate some bold measures in terms of people-friendly land acquisition policies. Importantly, successive governments should ensure the momentum is continued in the nation’s interest.

We can satisfy ourselves projecting India to be unique and different compared to China or rest of the world and live with indifferent infrastructure. In the context of Chindia comparison, perhaps all the delay and sluggishness in infrastructure is the price we pay for the freedom we enjoy.


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