A nation’s infrastructure development plays a significant role in its economic growth. A fast growing economy warrants an even faster development of infrastructure. Any discussion about India’s infrastructure has to briefly cover the planning carried out for the country’s economic growth, since Independence.
Why a revisit?
Along with Independence, India inherited famine and poverty from its colonial rulers. There was dire need for housing, health facilities, education, roads, power, irrigation projects and drinking water facilities for millions of underprivileged people. This called for proper economic planning. Unfortunately, the task of planning fell into the hands of those who were sympathetic to the feudal lobbies. These rich and powerful people had less concern for the social uplift of the poverty stricken masses. The outcome was that they lost sight of the main objective of planning the economy by keeping the overall national interest in view. It created economic inequalities among the States and erected roadblocks on the path of building infrastructure. Even today the people in power tend to fall victims to this skewed vision.
The rural/urban scenario
It is 59 years after Independence. Today, the rural population accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the total population, and nearly half of them still live in poverty and illiteracy. How good is the rural infrastructure? The latest report of the National Sample Survey Organisation on village facilities is a revelation in itself. To quote from the report, “One fourth of our villages do not have electricity; only 18 per cent of them get tap water; 54 per cent of them are more than 5 km away from the nearest health centre; one third of them do not have pre-primary schools and 78 per cent do not have post offices”! Yes, “India still lives in its villages”.
The cities shelter around 30 per cent of the population who contribute to the economic growth. However, the most vital part of economic growth, which is infrastructure, hardly matched the demands of even this 30 per cent of urban dwellers, spreading chaos at the slightest provocation with the danger of turning the clock backwards. This mismatch has been seen in the Mumbai deluge in September 2005 and a little later in Bangalore, shattering the “Shanghai dreams” that so many harbor.
The Chinese tales
The Chinese success stories are told and retold by many. Can India set her standards by looking at China? Can one draw a parallel between those mega cities with the Indian ones, or its infrastructure development for that matter? It is debatable. However, what can be compared is the Chinese commitment. Look at their endeavours in making the Expressways. According to a recent newspaper report, when India completed 6000 km of her Expressways in six years, China had done 40,000 km within that time. Even today the Indian government endlessly debates the privatisation of airports. At least some of the analysts perceive a ‘damaging drag’ on the economy due to problems connected to infrastructure. Growth potential is dependent on the quality of performance of infrastructure to a great extent - a fact the Chinese realised much earlier than us. The fast growth of this Socialist country is extremely relevant.
The cost factor
There is a cost factor involved in developing the country’s infrastructure. Funds are required and so is innovation. The government should allow private participation in this area. The political class should create an environment where investors feel confident of recovering their costs and the cost of capital. It is the country’s politics that has to decide whether “only the fools should pay for infrastructure” as in the case of our power generation. Distribution has to be set up where it has not been successful in arresting power theft and losses. The practical solution would be allowing private players to build and manage the infrastructure and let the users pay for the costs. One successful endeavour on this front is the model city coming up near Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat on the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar Highway. It is being built under private entrepreneurship - something worth emulating elsewhere in the country. This model does not have to apply just to cities, but anything really. However, these decisions call for a strong political will.
To sum up
The above discussion can be summarised under the following list of do’s and don’ts. Although this is not exhaustive, it would certainly pave the way for faster development of infrastructure.
(i) Have a proper vision for growth
(ii) Plan for the long-term
(iii) Have commitment and show political will
(iv) Give innovative ideas a chance
(v) Remove unnecessary controls and roadblocks
(vi) Boost investors’ confidence
(vii) Make human capital productive
(viii) Leave all doors open so that corruption is kept away
(ix) Spread the value of education and make it compulsory
(x) Review and adjust the demand/supply position of infrastructure from time to time.
The country’s economy has spread its wings. However, for it to truly take off, the country has to improve infrastructure. One can speed up the process, by revising, revisiting and upgrading the development plans with a long-term view. Yes, one has to firmly believe that reforms are the pre-requisite for growth and reforming infrastructure sustains growth. Who does not want to see a double-digit growth rate of the GDP in the near future?
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