March 13, 2008

Yonder belief: China

When hard and soft infrastructure combine, as they do in China, the result can be overpowering.
HDFC wasn't quite honest in its recent ad campaign promoting its Infrastructure Fund. Headed "Magnificent India," the ad carried the photo of what surely is a magnificent bridge, but it wasn't an Indian bridge at all. It was the Nanpu Bridge across Shanghai's Huangpu River, with its famous coiled approaches. There wasn't even an acknowledgment.
It was foolish of HDFC to believe nobody would see through the silly pretence. If the idea was to convey that one day India would be as magnificent as China in the quality of its infrastructure, why didn't HDFC say so? Surely, that would have been more honourable than passing off someone else's achievement as ours.
But I must admit I liked the hidden message. Indeed, China is a role model in infrastructure development and India would do well to look up to it. However, I doubt if HDFC or anybody really understands what it actually means. What's happening in China is a total revolution, on all fronts, at the same time. What's happening in India is a hit-and-run tamasha, one road here, one flyover there, bridges without proper approaches, highways running into sudden bottlenecks, destinations that can't be easily reached (like Bengaluru's new airport).
Here are some facts to show our infrastructurewallahs where China is headed and, by implication, what it would take us to reach a level of magnificence where one would be amazed enough to say, "Wow!"
Take roads. A 35,000-km network of trunk roads, with five major north-south corridors and seven east-west ones, is now almost ready and will connect all cities with a population of 1 million or more. Highways make up 75 per cent of this network. But, increasingly, highways are giving way to expressways where even freight trucks move at speeds of 70 km per hour, or more. In another 12 years, there will be 85,000 km of expressways in China — in length, second only to the US.
Or railways. Having built the world's first commercial Maglev and an astonishing 1,500-km railway to Lhasa, China has begun work on what's going to be another engineering marvel, a $27 billion, 1,318-km high-speed railway link between Shanghai and Beijing with trains hurtling at 350 km per hour. China is desperate about building new railways and has advanced by five years its earlier target of having 120,000 km of tracks by 2020. And speed is the name of the game. Already, 257 of China's trains operate at 200 km/h or more and 22,000 km of tracks, or 29 per cent of the national network, support trains running at 120 km/h or more. By 2020, China expects to have 12,000 km of passenger-only high-speed tracks.
One sees a similar concern for urban railways. Some 600 km of subways and light railways already exist and 36 new subways are being built in 12 cities. In the next 10 years, urban rail transit lines will expand to 1,700 km. Beijing alone is building 11 new subway lines with a total length of 270 km. By 2015, it will have a network of 19 metro lines aggregating more than 440 km, and all residents within its fourth Ring Road will be within a kilometre of a subway station.
Consider also this: A spanking new terminal has just opened at Beijing International Airport, ahead of the August Olympic Games, while 100 new airports will be built in the next 12 years, taking the total number of airports to 242 and bringing 70 per cent of the population within a hundred kilometres of one. Seaports, too, are going through furious expansion as Chinese containers begin to flood the world. Shanghai is already the world's busiest container port and a huge deep-water port is coming up on Yangshan, a reclaimed island off Shanghai connected to the mainland by a 20-mile-long bridge.
There are other things to wow about in China. It has taken only eight years to reinvent Beijing, only five to transform the barren fields of Shanghai Pudong. Four hundred new cities are to be built in the next 12 years as modernisation sweeps inland from the coasts. This month, a 36-km, six-lane highway will open across Hangzhou Bay to link cities and towns of the Yangtze River Delta, the longest sea crossing in the world. A second mammoth West-to-East natural gas pipeline, 8,794 km long and likely to cost some $20 billion, is nearing completion.
What's most amazing about the Chinese infrastructure story is the extremely coordinated manner in which it's unfolding, as if an orchestra is at play. But that's one side of it. The other side is no less impressive: 99.5 per cent of the country's villages now have access to telephone links and 95 per cent of them will have broadband connectivity by the end of this year. That's infrastructure, too, and when hard and soft infrastructure combine, the result can be overpowering.

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