I have this image of Bombay grinding to a dead halt, as its vital arteries slowly get clogged with people and traffic. Its happening already, in smaller doses. And no one particularly cares. A proposal to get a sea-water transport project off the ground has entered its 30th year of discussion - I could be off by a few years. A proposal to build a sea-link with the mainland is now, possibly, in its 40th year of debate.
At this rate, we should be looking at projects that were initiated in the time of or last reviewed by Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979), Viceroy and Governor General of India in 1947 and see where we stand. I suspect not too badly off. The bulk of the infrastructure you and I use today, including railway lines, roads, airports, ports and water pipelines, were built before Independence. There are less active airports in India than there were in 1947. I would love to be corrected on this one.
Amartya Sen was bang on about argumentative Indians. Except that he did not put a time line on how long Indians can argue and debate on a subject. At least I don't think so. A head of a foreign bank in India recently told me how he was amazed that elections in India were not the end of the process but the beginning of it. A person elected to power is only elected, not empowered. So, by extension, he or she is not elected to power. What is this person elected to ? I wonder.
Beginning Or End ?
A decision to modernise an airport is the beginning of the process, not, as you might think, the end of a debate on whether to modernise or not. Modernisation, I might add, can be best described here as the renovation of a large hall, putting some extra lights, brightening things a little and adding a few counters here and there. This issue continues to be debated, while, as this writer has argued before, we should be building at least three new airports (in as many cities) as of yesterday.
A Bollywood film (Aamir Khan's Rang De Basanti if you were dying to know) is debated upon. The defence minister of the country and the three chiefs of the Indian defence forces have the time and inclination to sit through a film and decide whether you and I should be shown how obsolete Russian MIG 21s take-off and land in India. Hint, its usually outside the airport and preferably headlong into some open field. I wonder if warlords in Somalia (of which there are many and tasks few) have the time to administer films in their regimes.
Not all Indians are in this mode. Not Infosys Technologies, not Tata Steel. India Inc is on a furious, never say never die growth mode. Its CEOs, some of who run corporations larger than many government departments, are running faster than their tread mills allow them to. They are desperately seeking opportunities to expand and grow. Before the inexorable hand of time and globalisation grabs them.
India Inc Is Awake At Night
India Inc is battling sleepless nights and focussing on execution and competitiveness. And the Government of India as manifested here in the defence minister is putting his stamp of approval on a Bollywood film. The gap in priorities between the two Indias, of enterprise and government is frightening. Its a contradiction in democracy that one is unable to quite fathom.
Over the last four months, I have been part of two major round table debates on whether the Government of India is failing India Inc, or is it the other way around ? One was at XLRI in Jamshedpur, the other at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. More on them later but suffice to say there is an increasing disconnect between the educated, urgency driven youth and our ageing, perpetually debating politicians. The disconnect is perhaps accentutated by the fact that the young attempt to understand. Only to be dissapointed.
This is truly worrying. If I work hard and pay my taxes, I expect some returns. As do entrepreneurs and their firms. Note that one is not asking for a China-like pace. Though I could argue that India's private sector can match the Chinese entrepreneurial sector. Its got a way to go but not much. But in China, the state is clearing hurdles at breakneck speed. In India, in a sickening combination of ineptitude and inaction, it is introducing them at the same pace.
India Inc is getting around the roadblocks by scouring for opportunities outside. Despite the fact that the second largest market in the world is theoretically right here. You can hold back everything but not ingenuity and enterprise. India's largest company, Reliance Industries, it is said, wants to build brand new cities. American construction major Bechtel (whose services Reliance ocassionaly uses) is famed for its ability to do precisely that. Now, is there a way to get governments that work as well.