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Infrastructure key to faster growth

India’s economic future will continue to be cloudy unless its infrastructure matches what advanced nations have.

MADHAV NALAPAT  New Delhi | 29th Jul 2012

A rickshaw puller makes his way through a flooded street in Kolkata earlier this month. REUTERS

mong the top 10 global economic powers, India has the worst infrastructure. Even where additions have taken place, they appear to have been designed for yesterday rather than tomorrow. Bangalore's airport is an example. From the start, it was clear that the terminal building was too small, with the consequence that it often resembles a mofussil bus stand on a busy day. Local industry was neglected in favour of (far more expensive) foreign imports, even for the procurement of washroom fittings. The older airport was closed to any other than charter and VIP traffic, even though economic commonsense mandated its continued use, possibly for short-haul flights or for those living far away from the new airport. In other countries, commuters usually have a choice of airport when landing in a city. In the case of Washington DC, commuters can land into Reagan National or Dulles, or even airports further away. In India, the very word "choice" is anathema to planners, all of whom seek to follow the Henry Ford dictum: "Customers can have any colour for their car, so long as it's black." Hence, Bangalore residents living in areas far away from the new airport are denied the option of using the old one, as all commercial flights have been banned from using it.

The ignoring of the needs of the public in the design of infrastructure projects in India can be seen at the Gurgaon-Delhi toll plaza. Those seeking to cross the road risk their lives, and all because overhead walkways or underpasses have not been provided at regular intervals on this stretch of the highway. The consequence is that pedestrians, often women and children, weave and dodge approaching vehicles in a desperate bid to cross the road. And as for other conveniences, these are entirely absent. Planners clearly believe in the Hafez Assad principle that bladder control ought to be resorted to for several hours at a time. The contempt shown to elementary public needs has made India a hell for those unable to afford the five-star lifestyles of the political, administrative and business elite.

While travel has become less burdensome in other major economies, it remains a nightmare in India. Getting from Dubai to Abu Dhabi takes about an hour, because of roads where high speeds are the (safe) norm. In China, the distance of 180-plus kilometres between Beijing and Tianjin is covered in a half-hour, because of a high speed rail network that links the two cities so effectively that it is possible now to live in one city and work in the other. Indeed, a citizen of India visiting China will be close to despair at the immense difference between the quality of infrastructure in his own country and that in a country that at its inception in 1949 was much poorer than even India. These days, Indians travel across the globe, where they can see for themselves that even the most backward regions of the world boast better infrastructure than India. And not only in roads. Power is another issue. In Gurgaon, where people put up crores of rupees to purchase dwellings, power cuts have become the norm, especially during the afternoons and the nights. As for water, that has become a luxury to many, despite the fact that even if 30% of rainwater were captured for human use, the country's water shortage would give way to abundance.Image 2nd

Given the fact that global warming has become a reality, as has extreme unpredictability in climate, it is essential that (1) major works be kept far away from sites that are in danger of extreme events, and (2) there ought to be the use of designs and materials that counteract the effect of climate. Water flow needs to be ensured so that roads do not get waterlogged or rail tracks made unusable because of flooding. Ensuring such design changes is not only well within the range of options available to engineers and builders, but has been for some time. The problem is that old habits persist long after the stage when they ought to be jettisoned, the result being stagnation in the methods of design and execution. Hopefully, all this will change.

Hopefully. For unless India's infrastructure matches more closely with that of other advanced economies, the country's economic future will continue to be cloudy. Each day, intending investors fly back from India, having changed their minds about investing in the country after seeing its miserably low standard of infrastructure. By denying power for hours at a stretch, planners are simply boosting the consumption of fossil fuel in diesel generators across India. This pushes up the country's import bill, besides adding to pollution. By substandard public transport modes, people are forced to use automobiles to get around. Had a paisa been spent yesterday on better infrastructure, the country would save a rupee today. Better infrastructure means a better lifestyle, better productivity and higher overall income. Infrastructure is at the core of economic progress, which is why it is important to highlight this sector and point out both deficiencies as well as solutions. If China can do it, so can India.

 
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