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BW Businessworld

Beyond The Brick And Mortar

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As with an ageing music band releasing a best of compilation, business commentators too have taken to packaging their newsprint columns into books. Getting It Right is a compilation of articles written by Vinayak Chatterjee in national dailies over recent years. But that does not take credit away from the book as the themes remain evergreen over a wide range of topics —  from defining and measuring infrastructure to the inadequate local capacity and lack of bankable projects, the bewildering number of approvals needed, and the call for regulatory independence. This is, perhaps, a commentary in itself of the slow and uneven progress in creating a viable climate for either public or private, investments in infrastructure. The slow progress on the topics since they were written makes the contents appear even more urgent now.

The book draws its strength from Chatterjee's unique ring-side view of the infrastructure policy evolution and his ability to summarise concepts and hurdles for a regular business reader without losing its serious import. Therein also lies the book's weakness and at a fundamental level, a continuing conundrum of our economic and social development vis-à-vis how to translate clear principles and expectations of the nation into action at the state and local levels, where many challenges must be overcome, and the delivery capacity is limited. The author's proposals for creating an infrastructure ministry to focus on select mega projects and centralised decision making are appealing and may possibly work, though one cannot shake off the feeling of it carrying a made-in-China tag. The problem has challenged many, and legend has the former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee lamenting when presented an ambitious growth road-map: "but how can all this be done?"

The answer may not lie in toting up the few large successes of a gleaming new airport terminal or a zippy metro rail, but in the relatively more numerous but smaller and less-remarked regular applications. The book touches upon examples such as the Punjab Infrastructure Development Board or the Magarpatta township, but as M.S. Dhoni's men have symbolised with the World Cup win recently, many successful projects are forged under more arduous circumstances in small towns. These examples, though a drop in the ocean for a large country like India, are still important as nuclei of future growth, and help lessen the infrastructure divide.

The idea of celebrating such examples is to recognise that local bodies, state agencies, project authorities, etc. can make credible progress in implementing infrastructure projects by themselves or bid out on PPP basis. The success of Gujarat's feeder segregation programme or of distribution franchisees in Assam or Maharashtra is not merely about the outcome, but much about overcoming the conventional wisdom; and its recognition by industry commentators and media can help spur more such attempts.

India's experience in infrastructure development diverges across sectors. It is not homogeneous in its political economy and has depended on strong individuals in technocrats or ministers to drive the process. The book itself comes strong on roads, urban development and SEZs, but coverage of other sectors such as ports and power is weak and limited. The shortcomings in our infrastructure are beyond the brick and mortar, and projects are as much impacted by limitations in project management, use of technology and human resources. This aspect is missing in the book. The collection breaks useful ground on moving from asset creation to services, a maddening failure of assets to last, which a common user can relate to, but somehow lost on project authorities. To address such issues, we need more public discussion on the quality and sustainability of infrastructure spending.

The book could have given us an interesting perspective on policy evolution in infrastructure if the articles were compiled in time sequence with an occasional commentary on outcomes. As the articles are organised subject-wise, a reader is occasionally left bewildered on coming back to an issue that was resolved in an earlier chapter. Still, the story is relevant and urgent, and must be told and, more importantly, learnt.

Author's Details:
Vinayak Chatterjee is chairman of Feedback Ventures, a company that provides integrated professional and technical services for the infrastructure sector. He completed his MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, and was chairman of CII's national committee on urban infrastructure for 2002-03 and 2003-04, and was the chairman of CII (northern region) for 2000-01.

Rao is executive director of government reforms and infrastructure development at PwC India

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-06-2011)