June 19, 2006

How not to build a developed nation

Two quick quiz questions about mega construction projects, one 117 years old and the other very recent, both of which got the world talking about them.

l how long did it take for Gustav Eiffel and his engineers to complete the 320-metre Eiffel Tower, which even today remains one of the tallest structures in the world? (Answer: 2 years, 2 months, 5 days.)

l How much time has China taken to complete the world’s highest and most complex railway project—the 1,140-km rail link from mainland China to Lhasa in Tibet? (Answer: Six years. That is, two years ahead of its scheduled opening for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

The purpose of asking these questions is not to test the readers’ GK. No. Rather, it is to highlight the contrast between how ambitious nations implement big projects, and how we in India (with proud exceptions) generally put up with awful delays.

Last Sunday, I was saddened by a front-page story in this newspaper: ‘Kumaraswamy govt works on law to take over Bangalore-Mysore expressway, long stalled by his father despite being cleared by the SC. Records show humble farmer’s son sits on real-estate goldmine’. The 175-km link was one of the earliest expressways conceived in India. No Indian city has achieved such dizzying growth in the past 10-15 years as Bangalore has. Also, no other city has contributed as much to enhancing India’s global reputation as a software superpower. Naturally, growth in prosperity has also brought in its wake growth in population, and the attendant pressure on the city’s woefully inadequate infrastructure. Thus, even as IT and biotech parks proliferated, the original city of parks and gardens began to wilt under pollution, choked roads, encroached open spaces and that bane of unplanned urbanisation—slums.

It therefore goes to the credit of H D Deve Gowda who, as the then chief minister of Karnataka, green-signalled construction of an expressway as far back as in 1995. His government also consented to provide 20,190 acres of land for building five modern townships along the Bangalore-Mysore corridor, equipped with their own power plant, water supply and sewage system, so that future growth would be decentralised.

Unfortunately, after 11 long years, the same person is trying to scuttle the project by getting his son’s government to throw its private promoter—Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprise—out and take it over. If the promoter had played foul or showed no commitment to the project, the state government would be justified in taking such a drastic step. But the facts of the case, as examined by both the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court, point to an altogether different truth. And that truth is unsavoury. It shows an arrogant politician wanting his son’s government to flout an agreement that he himself had signed, and a cabal of ‘‘professional’’ PIL-filers who misused a pro-people judicial instrument in order to stall the project at the behest of vested interests. The Supreme Court judgement, delivered in April this year by Justices Ruma Pal, B N Srikrishna and Dalveer Bhandari, is an eye-opener. No other state government has been so roundly chastised by the apex court for conspiring to wreck its own signature infrastructure project, simply because some corrupt politicians want to grab a bigger pie in the real estate boom.

The Bangalore-Mysore expressway is just one of the many infrastructure projects in India that tell the sad tale of delays and the resultant cost overruns and lost opportunities in economic development. The corruption-infested Enron power project; the sea-link in Mumbai between Bandra, Worli and Nariman Point; the long-stalled expansion and modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports; the delay in construction of greenfield airports in cities like Bangalore; scores of incomplete irrigation projects all across the country—the list is long. The Central Government has a separate ministry for programme imlementation. Its annual report makes for painful reading. Over a hundred projects, with tens of thousands of crores of investments already made in them, have been languishing for years together. Once, during my PMO days, I visited the office of this ministry to acquaint myself with its functioning. I was appalled to find that a ministry that was meant to keep a watch on important projects around the country was itself in a state of utter neglect. Bureaucrats working there consider it a punishment posting and no minister wants that portfolio if he can help it.

It’s not that our country has no examples of speedy project implementation. They abound, especially in India’s increasingly gung-ho private sector. L&T, for instance, built Hyderabad’s famous Hi-Tech City at such blinding speed that each of its floors was completed in just 12 days, prompting the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who inaugurated it, to say that ‘‘L&T has lived up to the promise contained in its corporate slogan: ‘We make things that make India proud’.’’ In the government sector, a prime example of speedy project implementation is the Mumbai-Pune expressway. What Nitin Gadkari—a go-getting PWD minister in Maharashtra’s BJP-Sena coalition government—did, by first raising funds from the capital market and then involving the best of private construction companies to execute the project, remains an exemplary case study in public-private partnership. In many ways, the Mumbai-Pune expressway inspired Vajpayee’s vision of building a garland of international-class highways (‘The Golden Quadrilateral’) linking India’s four metros and hundreds of cities and towns in between.

At least the proven benefits of the Mumbai-Pune expressway ought to have convinced the government of Karnataka, which had formalised the Bangalore-Mysore expressway much earlier, to go full steam ahead with its flagship project. Alas, the will and vision of many leading politicians in that state seem to stand in inverse proportion to those displayed by its business leaders—the likes of Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Azim Premji and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw.

A key dispute-causing factor in all big projects has been land acquisition. I have argued in one of my previous columns that small and medium farmers usually lose out when big money comes and starts acquiring land. In Bangalore, however, it is big sharks that are making the noise by posing themselves as ‘‘farmer’s sons’’ and opposing the agreed transfer of land to the project.

I have another reason for backing this project. Its main promoter—Baba Kalyani of Bharat Forge of Pune—is not a fly-by-night operator. His is a self-scripted success story of a businessmen who has turned globalisation to India’s advantage. In less than a decade, Kalyani transformed Bharat Forge from a non-descript metal bender into the world’s second-largest forging company, all thanks to induction of state-of-the-art technology, eye on quality and harnessing the cost advantage that India has over European and American foundries. I admire him especially because of his proposal to partner with the government to establish a world-class R&D centre, which would help small-scale foundries in places like Ludhiana, Jamshedpur, Belgaum and Kolhapur.

The BJP, a partner in Karnataka’s coalition government, must stoutly oppose the JD(S) move to ‘‘nationalise’’ the expressway project. This misadventure would certainly invite a stinging judicial slap. What is worse, the project itself would take many more years—and also many additional hundreds of crores—for completion. This is not the way to build India as a Developed Nation. Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy would do well to rebuff his father’s pressure and, instead, do what’s good for his state. He should assure all support to Kalyani for the fastest possible implementation of the entire project. Kalyani, in turn, should take some proactive steps to assure the people of Karnataka that he is not in the game of profiteering from Bangalore’s real-estate boom but is committed to constructing something that the whole nation would be proud of.

write to sudheen.kulkarni@expressindia.com


A little more opinion at Govindraj Ethiraj's journal- http://datelinebombay.blogspot.com/2006/06/fighting-government-to-survive.html

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