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Failings of Indian infrastructure

by Kevin Rafferty

NEW DELHI — New Delhi at last has its proud defining modern monument at the very point of entry to India — a massive, sparkling new Terminal 3, which alone is the sixth-largest airport in the world. Remarkably, too, it was built on time, in three years by a public-private partnership, and on a $3 billion budget.

Gone are the long snaking queues in sweaty air smelling of insecticide and worse: You can now get through immigration and customs in air- conditioned bliss at least as quickly as in Singapore, faster than in Hong Kong and far faster than in London, New York or Washington with their crumbling Third World infrastructure and officials with the charm of a fourth world dictatorship.

Then you go outside and meet the real India, whose infrastructure is failing.

Much of New Delhi and its hinterland of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh resembles a sprawling construction site, perhaps evidence that India is finally trying to get to grips with its poor roads, slow railways and inefficient ports. Indeed, the government of Manmohan Singh plans to spend $1 trillion between 2012 and 2017 and to raise its investment in infrastructure from 4 percent to 9 percent of GDP.

Not soon enough: India is among the world’s worst for infrastructure, 89th out of 133 in overall infrastructure according to the World Economic Forum; 89th for road quality; 90th for ports, where the turnaround time for ships is 3.85 days, compared with 10 hours in Hong Kong; 65th for air transport; and 106th for quality of electricity supply. No Indian city receives water for 24 hours a day.

China has 3.75 million kilometers of highways, but India, though it has a slightly lower number of roads, has only 67,000 kilometers of highways. China has 854 gigawatts of installed power capacity; India just 150 gw. China adds 50 to 60 gw to power capacity each year; India just 8 to 10. China has 86,000 kilometers of railway track; India 63,000.

In steel capacity, China is way ahead of India, with 620 million metric tons per annum against 57 million metric tons. And in cement capacity, China’s 1.2 billion metric tons outscores India’s 270 million metric tons.

Bare numbers don’t tell the whole story. Only 25 percent of India’s highways are two- or four-lane, and almost 90 percent of highways are structurally inadequate to support truckloads of more than 10.2 tons.

All the evidence indicates that things in India will get worse in spite of the government’s promises unless there are major changes in policy and in practice.

Remorseless pressure is increasing, ironically from rapid economic growth. India’s 7.5 percent growth rate is imposing new strains on old resources. Poor roads means that up to 50 percent of perishable goods actually perish before they get to market. Better infrastructure would mean India could grow at double digits. Each year, too, India’s urban population is increasing as migrants flock to the city slums, driven by the lack of opportunities in the villages and the lure of jobs in the growing economy.

Some pundits believe that India will become an overwhelmingly urban country in the next few decades and thus urge planning for proper infrastructure. Skeptics and Gandhian opponents say that’s a colonial view, as it goes against the traditions and culture of village India.

One test is the Commonwealth Games, due to open in October and intended as a sort of coming-of-age celebration for India, as the Olympics were for Seoul and Beijing and the World Cup was for South Africa. The New Delhi Commonwealth Games have cost a record $7.5 billion; by comparison, the 2002 Manchester games cost a mere £300 million, including building the stadium that is now Manchester City’s home ground.

The Delhi games have become a byword for chaos, waste, inefficiency and corruption. There is also corruption in China, but as one of my Indian friends remarked, China seems to produce corruption as well as competence and efficiency, but in India it is corruption and inefficiency.

In India, there is the democratic deficit. When you are elected, the spoils of power are at your disposal, and with the shining honorable exception of Prime Minister Singh, too many Indians have been too quick to seize the perks of power.

There is a failure to comprehend the size of the task. New Delhi friends point to the successful completion of the Metro. But a city of Delhi’s size needs not one but 12 to 20 lines like the Metro.

India has not geared up for the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Much work on Indian construction sites is being done by the human headload. Preparations last month for roadwork in an upmarket Delhi suburb saw four men squatting to chop bricks with a small hammer to lay the foundations. Nothing observed at Delhi’s construction sites matched Pudong’s more than a decade ago. There, cement mixers waited in almost balletic precision ready to pour their contribution to building China.

Above all there is the human deficit; no one cares beyond their own space. Four hours before departure from Terminal 3, signboards announced that check-in had commenced, but the rows of desks were empty. An American Airlines clerk snarled that he knew nothing, the information desk knew nothing, the airport owners desk said it only follows the rules, and a massive Star Alliance desk said, “We are Air India, go to airport information.”

The vast central concourse had no seats. Three weeks after T3 had opened, the two coffee shops and bookshop had not. For entertainment, two pigeons raced up and down under the roof.

T3 security retains the old insecure touches. You and your hand baggage — strictly one piece only — have to pass through the standard detectors, now state of the art, and then undergo a patdown check. But five meters on, you are challenged by a another security official, whose job is to check that your hand baggage has been officially stamped.

At the aircraft door, other security goons stand ready to check that you have collected enough stamps to be allowed on board — from immigration and customs on the boarding pass and from security on the hand baggage tag.

© Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.