Man at work, business as usual! Infra optics amidst stalled projects

Published: 30th June 2013 07:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:15 PM   |  A+A-

Define irony: On Friday, the Government of India—which struggles to clear stalled investments of Rs 7 lakh crore—announced a slew of infrastructure projects. Presented as a prime ministerial initiative to boost growth, there was, of course, no mention of the stalled projects. Given the state of sloth, there will be growth for sure—in the number of stalled promises.

In Mumbai, the gullible were giddy over the clearance of Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ Metro III corridor, originally proposed in 2006. The city was informed that it would cost `23,136 crore and would be up and running by March 2019. What is the worth of this promissory note? Not much if the past is any indicator. On June 21, 2006, while laying the foundation stone of Metro I for the 11-km stretch between Versova and Ghatkopar via Andheri, Manmohan Singh said, “I believe it is to be completed in three years by 2009.” In June 2013, haunted by delays, Metro I is yet to start operations. If the assurances of the chief minister are to be taken seriously, it might be operational only in 2014. The fate of Metro II is no different. Kicked off in 2009, the 32-km Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd fully-elevated line is stuck, pending environment clearance and the private partner has threatened to pull out. Man at work? Nope, it’s just business as usual.

Ditto is the fate of Mumbai Urban Transport Project II, the elevated rail corridor between Churchgate and Virar. The idea first made its appearance in the 10th Five-Year Plan and then wound its way into the February 2008 Railway Budget speech of Lalu Yadav as a Mumbai Central-Virar suburban line. In July 2009, it found a place in the speech of Mamata Banerjee again as a Churchgate-Virar line. In 2008, Yadav said pre-feasibility studies were on. In 2013, the 60-km project has moved only till an in-principle approval. In June this year, irony visited the project: the Planning Commission has asked the state government to “expedite” it.

On Friday, the government also promised new airports: at Pune, Kolhapur, Nashik, Jalgaon, Sholapur Amravati and, once again, Navi Mumbai. The journey of what was once described as the second airport for Mumbai symbolises the state of affairs. The Navi Mumbai airport first finds mention in the 10th (2002-2007) Five-Year Plan. In December 2006, Vilasrao Deshmukh, then chief minister, first raised the demand with the Centre. On May 31, 2007, the Government of India announced that a new international airport will be built in Navi Mumbai to be operational by 2011. Till November 2010, however, the project had not even got its basic environmental clearance. Indeed, five years after the announcement, on July 30, 2012, the Centre promised to “fast-track necessary clearances”. Now, on June 28, 2013, India is informed that the Navi Mumbai airport is one of the eight airport projects the government plans “to start work on”.

There is a reason why the examples are geographically localised. The UPA government has for nearly a decade sought to hide its failures in a ghetto of alibis—blaming political resistance in Opposition-ruled states or ministers from parties in alliance. In the case of Mumbai and Maharashtra, however, it can’t hide  or run. The Government of India is headed by a Congressman, the Oxbridge-educated economist prime minister. Maharashtra has been headed since 1999 by Congressmen and now by Berkeley-educated Prithviraj Chavan. Yet, nothing moves.

It is not just about Mumbai or Maharashtra. Bombay has long been dead and Mumbai is being slowly mummified. The malaise of delays and under-performance is a national affliction. In September 2012, the Planning Commission met to clear the 12th Five-Year Plan and reviewed the UPA government’s performance on critical infrastructure. The findings reflect the magnitude of systemic collapse. In the 11th Five-Year Plan, between 2007 and 2012, the government had promised to build 48,479 km of roads but built only 17,571 km. It was supposed to add 21,500 km of railway lines but added only 14,571 km. The government was supposed to add 78,700 MW of generating capacity but added only 55,000 MW. It was supposed to ensure production of 680 million tonnes of coal per year but India produced only 171 million tonnes. Worse, the country with the third largest coal reserve is now importing coal.

Much is being made of the potential of PPP or public-private partnerships. In December 2012, India boasted of over 900 PPP projects of over `5 lakh crore in the infrastructure sector alone. That hasn’t prevented delays and stalling. The embrace of the three-letter acronym has not proven to be necessary (proven by Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro) nor has it been sufficient for success. There is a parade of private partners threatening to walk out, thanks to the sloth in the system that adds to the cost.

The truth is that under the watch of Manmohan Singh, who heads the Cabinet Committee of Infrastructure, the system has neither enabled clarity nor expanded capacity. The chasm between promise and performance has only widened. Friday’s announcements simply amplify the cynicism in the system. Spin-doctoring is yet to talk up any economy.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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