March 6, 2006

The bureaucrat won't share his space, and politicians play a zero sum game with cities

The software czar who wants to redesign urban hardware spoke to our National Metro Editor Bachi Karkaria on what must go into civic infrastructure planning to get the best out of it
N R Narayana Murthy is the corporate face of civic improvement. He has established the paradigm for public-private partnership, raising the bar for, both, the business community and bureaucrats. He has not stinted on time, money or spade-calling to ensure its efficient functioning. The Deve Gowda spanner and Murthy’s high-wattage pull-out may have screwed up the PPP showpiece of the Bangalore International Airport, but the incident has highlighted the need to nuance the ground rules, and demarcate the territorial lines. What are the sticking points, where lies our strength?
What defines leadership in the creation of civic wealth?
No.1 is Urgency. We have been asking for a captive power plant for Bangalore since 1983, a truck terminal for 15 years. Now, after a decade, work on the stilt toll-way to Electronics City has started, but it’s still slow. We no longer have a forex problem. We should hire the best consultants from South Korea, Japan, Germany, get them to identify five to 10 nationally important projects, and give presentations. Then involve Indian companies so they too learn. Dr Mahathir told me how the Petronas Towers got built on time, “I contracted one to a Japanese company and one to a South Korean. Each tried to get its job done better and faster.
Two, objectivity. The Golden Quadrilateral project slowed when the government changed. National infrastructure should not fall prey to politics. Use data and logic to argue out the case, then stick to the decision, whether you are in power or the opposition.
Three, a recognition of technology. Flyovers take years because we don’t bring in sophisticated equipment. While trying to create jobs for 100 or 200 people, we inconvenience thousands, and delay the benefits to many more. And look at our work culture. In Thailand, China, Singapore, Indonesia, they build round the clock. Ours observe office timings. Civil works should run on three fully staffed shifts. Set tough targets, and compress cycle-time.
Isn’t corporate involvement motivated merely by self-interest, not any noble altruism?
It is a fundamental principle of economic behaviour that human selfinterest drives what is ultimately good for all society. On the other hand, in developing countries, corporates must go beyond this and make a difference to their context. Lots of companies want to do something, but are disgusted by the bottlenecks, the friction. Even philanthropy in India is not easy. Someone wanted to add wards to a public hospital; it took one year just to get the electric connections. People think you are doing it for political power.
What is needed to make civic Public-Private Partnerships work?
It is not the role of corporates to build roads. Their primary objective is to run their business efficiently and ethically. But they can be in partnership; the Bangalore Agenda Task Force did fantastic work. But when the Dharam Singh government came in, they simply abolished it. They did not even have the courtesy to inform Nandan (Nilekani), forget about a thank you. He poor fellow was spending his own money and weekends. Governments must create a system which recognises the value that PPP brings.
Where do the fault-lines lie?
One, no discipline in thought; the attitude is , ‘whatever the previous government did, I am going to undo’. Two, colonial legacy. Bureaucracy is uncomfortable with anyone sharing their sphere; they see it as loss of power/control. Three, political vested interest. Their vote-base is rural so they are afraid to suggest any urban bias. But they should not play a zerosum game. The trouble is no one uses data; so wrong perceptions will persist.
Surely, we also need to ensure accountability from the private sector?
When the PPP is formed, declare the expected outcomes, the performance indicators for these, the required budget; mandate data provision on inputs and outcomes.
Today we don’t have any transparency in the public domain. We have got the right to information after almost 60 years—it’s ridiculous. Transparency comes from fairness which includes honesty. This much money was put in, this much service came out of it. Once you increase transparency, accountability will come naturally. You have to mandate because you have to be fair to the community.
What is the psychological spinoff of good infrastructure?
The confidence that my child will reach school safe and healthy. That we can go to office in a decent, human manner. This way our energy and enthusiasm are high, productivity improves, and self-esteem. The environment should want to make you set out.Today it is debilitating. Take us. We leave the warm embryo of home and plunge into pollution, poverty, potholed roads, uncivil behaviour. We arrive at the Campus feeling miserable, and, in a jiffy, we have to transfer our mindset from the Third World to the demanding First World. Improvement in infrastructure is a visible sign, a big bonus in arguing the case for our country.
Can IT-enabled civic services be scaled up — or drilled down? Strategists such as Kamal Munir of Cambridge University disagree. Look what happened to Chandrababu Naidu.
How can IT be branded ‘elitist’. Its very purpose is to reduce cost and cycle-time, to improve productivity and comfort level. Who wants all this more than the poor? The Bhumi project computerised land records, so villagers get their certificates at the taluka itself.
A Nasscom experiment connected up a Mumbai taxi driver with his family in Azamgarh via video conference; you should have seen his sheer joy. Every instrument, if thought out, can be implemented. But implementation is so poor.
You frontally represent conservative culture, yet your business has unleashed a lifestyle revolution. Are you worried about the ‘clash of civilisations’ which IT money has triggered, about the pace of urban change?
When society is in the process of transformation, there is bound to be tension. You have to look at the pluses and minuses, and arrive at a considered judgment. I am convinced that the next generation has as good a value system. Looking at my children, their friends, in some ways I find them better than me. I am not so concerned about preserving the past, as long as people handle change in a well-thought-out manner. The young are smarter than us. This anxiety is as old as civilization. My wife was telling me that even the hieroglyphics in the pyramids spelt out this kind of moaning. It is natural for every generation to romanticise the past and be sceptical of the future. So let us just have faith in the present.
You are fond of the Robert Kennedy quote, “People see things as they are and wonder why. I see things as they never were, and say ‘Why Not?’.” Has the Bangalore Airport kerfuffle changed this? Made you cynical?
No. There will always be debate. That is the beauty of this country. I may feel let down because the other party is not going by data or logic. But this happens even at home. We have democracy, secularism and a youthful populations —it’s an extraordinary combination of potent forces.

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