There’s Old And Inefficient Infrastructure Across Indian Cities — Time To Rebuild That


Globally, infrastructure projects are used to make a statement about national ambition. The construction of tall to taller towers in Shanghai over the last few decades also reflects China’s ambition to dominate global finance.

India’s spending on infrastructure has gone up dramatically in the recent past. The country spent $1.1 trillion on infrastructure in the last decade. Another $1.5 trillion will be invested by financial year 2025 (FY25) to make the country a $5 trillion economy.

From modern expressways to swanky airports, nationwide gas grid, dedicated freight corridors, and high-speed and semi-highspeed rail — the hectic activity to change the ‘poor’ face of India is visible everywhere.

The Central Vista project, parts of which were unveiled by the Prime Minister recently, had gone a few steps ahead in this direction. Apart from making a statement it also highlighted the need to replace old, inefficient infrastructure.

A Huge Statement

It’s not every day that a democracy rebuilds its Parliament complex. And, when the world’s largest democracy rebuilds the corridors of power — once designed and occupied by colonial rulers — it makes a huge statement.

Placing a grand statue of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose in the same India Gate complex where once stood the statue of the British king, will go a long way in revisiting India’s freedom struggle.

Bose was the first prime minister of the Azad Hind government-in-exile. His Azad Hind Fauj (INA) launched a military attack on British India and declared parts of the country liberated, way before 15 August 1947.

Behind these optics, there was the need to establish the capability and vision of a new India. A bigger Parliament, with more seats, will pave the way for the delimitation of constituencies to accommodate the rising aspirations of an increasing population.

India has been a global example in reaching this far through universal suffrage. Western Europe, the US and Japan gave the universal franchise a chance after hitting a minimum of $2,500 per-capita income (‘Development with Dignity’, Amit Bhaduri). India’s per capita was way below $100 in 1947.

The 75th year of Independence was the perfect time to set the ‘Amrit Kaal’ goals to make India richer, better and more efficient in the next 25 years. A lot of it, however, will depend on infrastructure — both social and physical.

During the closed-economy era, India had set the goals of ensuring “roti, kapda and makan” (food, clothing and shelter) for all, and failed to achieve those targets miserably.

Things changed dramatically post-liberalisation. According to the World Bank, from 47 per cent in 1993, the share of the population living below the internal extreme poverty line of $1.90 per person per day was down to 22 percent in 2011.

In a recent publication, Brookings argued that absolute poverty was down to nearly 1 per cent in 2019 — due to huge food subsidies to the poor — and India should raise the bar to a ‘relative poverty’ line of $3.20 per person per day.

Considering its huge population, India did extremely well in providing food and shelter to the poor. Almost every village now has schools, electricity and telecommunication coverage.

Nearly 36 per cent of people are covered under the affordable healthcare scheme. Piped drinking water has reached 50 per cent of rural homes. The rest will be covered by 2024.

The next level of the challenge lies in improving the quality of services. The United Payment Interface (UPI) and Jan Dhan together ensured the financial inclusion of the poor. In the next stage, they should be duly integrated with the country’s financial product market.

Considering the declining total fertility rate, we may not need more schools but we surely need better schools. The recently announced PM SHRI (Schools for Rising India) programme to upgrade 14,500 schools with eight lakh students is the right step in this direction.

The scope and coverage of the programme should keep rising with time to meet the growing need for better-quality manpower that can optimise the benefits of Industry4.0. The world is changing fast. To ensure higher income, we have to change faster.

Time To Rebuild Old Infrastructure

That brings the focus to the increasing need to rebuild old infrastructure. In 2016, S&P Global identified wide gaps in infrastructure status between India and China in almost every head — roads, ports, electricity supply, railways etc.

Interestingly, the quality of Chinese infrastructure is not seamless. The vast hinterlands in the west suffer from connectivity issues. However, when it comes to the manufacturing hubs closer to the coast in the East, China has a robust infrastructure to fuel growth.

In comparison, India has sea on three sides and the production centres are located both near the coasts as well as in the hinterlands. According to S&P, “the key urban centres and manufacturing hubs in India often struggle with capacity constraints.”

The Narendra Modi government has been working overtime in meeting those gaps both by building new infrastructure and taking an integrated approach through the PM Gati Shakti programme. However, a lot is yet to be done, particularly in urban infrastructure.

The problem is visible to the naked eye. Any city or town in South East Asia looks distinctly better than the comparable Indian towns and cities. Even poor Myanmar or Vietnam ramped up urban infrastructure to appreciable levels in the quickest possible time.

Cities are engines of growth and the princely states in India often had a sharp focus on making them efficient. The small town of Cooch Behar, in West Bengal, had an enviable urban infrastructure. But Independent India didn’t care for such details. The result is catastrophic.

Barely any Indian city made provisions for smooth entry and exit of cargo. Trucks keep waiting at the border of Mumbai which has India’s largest port.

In Kolkata, the traffic restrictions on a small stretch of road, affect port operations. The flyovers were built with a passenger focus.

The problem doesn’t end with cities. The low height of old rail over-bridges is a crucial hurdle in the double-stacking of containers. A low bridge on Ganga, in Bihar, questions the viability of cargo movement along the river in the monsoon.

There are numerous dilapidated and/or narrow culverts which are making a significant contribution to India’s high logistics-cost-to-GDP-ratio. These legacies of the past must be replaced in a time-bound manner.

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