May 25, 2022. It is 5 am. Narendra Damodardas Modi lands at Palam Airforce Station fresh, despite two nights in plane and one night in Tokyo, holding 24 meetings in 41 hours. For the PM, it is work time again – first Cabinet meeting, next progress review of infrastructure projects, in between offering condolences to families of six tourists who died in a road accident in Odisha, and ending the day with a tweet on ‘I will be in Hyderabad and Chennai tomorrow’.
This is the ‘Modi way’.
This week, Narendra Modi completed eight years as the Prime Minister and started on the ninth year with focused pursuit to build modern, top-quality, futuristic and sustainable infrastructure at a scale not achieved in the past. This article attempts to assess the Modi government’s performance in the infrastructure sector in these eight years. I start by sharing three stories – of Modi and I, Modi and Nilekani, and Modi and Modi.
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Modi and I
In the past 64 years, I have had one nanosecond-long tryst with Narendra Modi – a handshake at Gandhinagar in early 2000s when chief minister Modi was trying to lure Japanese investments in Dholera, India’s first Special Investment Region (SIR). I suddenly hear Modi say: ‘New Gujarat within Gujarat – a new Singapore four times the size of Singapore’.
The previous night, over dinner at Cambay Resort in Gandhinagar, I had scribbled these words on a paper napkin and smuggled them to the CEO of Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board the next morning, who either gave them to Modi or Modi and I were dreaming the same dream. I was then the project director and team leader for the pre-feasibility study of Dholera-SIR.
At the end of the fifth edition of the two-day Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors’ Summit in 2011, Modi had the last laugh: 7,936 MOUs were inked for investment worth Rs 20.83 lakh crore, including billions of dollars in Dholera.
Dholera-SIR is now a dream come true.
Modi and Nilekani
Modi and Nandan Nilekani are the only two Indians who understand the disruptive power of technology to ‘reimagine India’.
In 2014, when Nandan Nilekani was fighting to enter the Lok Sabha, Modi reached Bengaluru to tear apart Nilekani and his baby Aadhaar. Nandan Nilekani lost the Lok Sabha election from Bengaluru South by 2.3 lakh votes to BJP’s Ananth Kumar. India Today wrote: Nandan Nilekani loses: Money can’t buy you vote.
But Nilekani did not stop re-imagining India. After defeat, Nilekani vacated the government bungalow, but got a courtesy meeting with the new PM – in other words, an opportunity to explain Aadhaar’s transformative power to Modi.
Modi went against the BJP view and turned into one of the most ardent champions of Aadhaar. Aadhaar was not Modi’s idea, but he made it big and used it as a delivery vehicle for his technology enabled direct transfer schemes, including housing for all.
Modi and Modi
In Gujarat for eight years (2002-2010), I learnt how to make ‘tomorrow’s infrastructure happen today’. I was handling two corridor development studies (Palanpur-Mehsana-Vadodara and Surendranagar-Rajkot-Morbi-Kandla corridors), railway projects (Bahruch Dahej and Ankaleshwar-Jhakadia), financing strategy for Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar Metro Rail, Dholera-SIR pre-feasibility, among others.
In Gujarat I got a primer on Modi’s infra vision. In 2014, Modi brought the Gujarat Model to Delhi and amplified it manifold.
PM Modi bested CM Modi with tech-powered PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation). The First PRAGATI meeting was held on March 25, 2015; the latest meeting (40th) was held on May 25, 2022. In between, PPRAGATI had powered 311 infrastructure projects worth Rs 14.82 lakh crore. The PRAGATI meeting held at 3.30 pm on last Wednesday of every month keeps project implementors on their toes. I just got first-hand PRAGATI lesson while handling critical gauge conversion railway project in the last three months.
Now I turn to Modi’s eight-year infrastructure scorecard through eight hits, eight misses and eight challenges. But first, I want to focus on two big and revolutionary interventions by the Modi government.
On October 2, 2014, Modi launched an ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on Mahatma’s 145th birth anniversary to achieve universal sanitation. Has it delivered? – I say substantially though it remains a work in progress.
After five years of launch, on October 2, 2019, all villages, gram panchayats, districts, states and union territories declared themselves ‘open-defecation free’ (ODF), with central government building toilets in 100 million homes.
Having keenly watched the Swachh Bharat campaign, I find its central contribution to be changing the narrative, by attempting the change at an audacious pace and scale. To assess the exact number of toilets constructed, surviving and in disuse, needs pan-India social audit but the message is – Swachh has walked the talk though the unenviable task of sustaining gains, and the behavioural change has just begun.
The success of Swachh 1.0 has made Modi gamble big this time on Swachh 2.0, to make cities garbage-free. If Swachh 2.0 can achieve even 50 per cent success rate, it will transform urban India. But given our propensity to litter a clean road, this mission will take time and effort to yield results.
Announced in his 88 minute-long speech from Red Fort on August 15, 2021, ‘Gati Shakti’ is Modi’s boldest holistic and integrated approach to infrastructure.
Gati Shakti – a Rs 100 lakh crore infrastructure master plan to make difference through integrated approach by breaking the entrenched silos over six years – has received Rs 20,000 crore allocation in this year’s Budget. Propelled by seven engines – roads, railways, airports, ports, mass transport, waterways and logistics – Gati Shakti is an idea whose time has come. But my caveat is: these are early days, and the programme has to navigate through deep and dark alleys with full might of governance to ensure it does not lose steam midway and gets stuck in the muddle.
Now, time to look at the hits and misses of the Narendra Modi government in these eight years.
First, the big picture and bigger Gestalt. The infra expenditure has gone up from Rs 1.81 lakh crore in FY15 to Rs 7.5 lakh crore in FY23, with a 35 per cent jump over FY22. To put FY23 capex in perspective, at 19.01 per cent of Rs 39,44,909-crore FY23 budget, the allocation is highest after 15.9 per cent in FY22, 13.54 per cent in FY21, 12.58 per cent in FY20 and 12.28 per cent in FY19.
Second, Modi is also fixing legacy issues. The project completion pace picked up for pending projects he inherited.
Third, Northeast integration. In 1990s, noted transport economist M.Q. Dalvi created the blueprint for a massive rail infra push in the Northeast; it is, however, Modi who has brought Northeast to the national mainstream with a cobweb of roads, bridges, tunnels, rail and air connectivity. Soon, all state capitals of the Northeast will be on rail map.
Fourth, border infra push. Narendra Modi has challenged the notion that good border infra will bring the enemy home fast. From a single tunnel during 2008-2014 to six in his era (two dozen more are planned), to doubling of bridges constructed, to fast-tracking road construction from 3,610 km in 2008-2014 to 4,764 km in 2014-2020, India has sent a loud and clear message that it is no more a pushover.
Fifth, power sector. Modi inherited a rural electricity programme which had moved at snail’s pace for decades and took it to the finish line at record pace. More noteworthy is the doubling of renewable capacity – both solar and wind – in five years and bringing it close to the target of 175 gigawatts by December 2022. Non-fossil installed energy capacity at 158 gigawatts is now 40 per cent of total electricity capacity of 392 gigawatts.
Six, stringing highways and expressways. Though the exact kilometrage of highways and expressways completed is a matter of detail but increasing the pace of construction from 8-12 km per day in the UPA era to 37-38 km per day is the biggest hit of Modi’s eight-year-old government.
Seventh, metro rail. In 2014, 200-km metro rail in Delhi-NCR region built to clockwise precision and within original estimated project cost was an oasis in a desert. This story has changed, and for good – operational metro rail has crossed 800 km in 20 cities, with another 900 km in completion stage and 1000 km in planning mode. Modi’s vision that India will have metro rail in 50 cities by 2031 seems within reach.
Eight, digital infrastructure. In 2019, McKinsey Global Institute’s report ‘Digital India: Technology to transform a connected nation’ noted that India is the largest and fastest-growing market for digital consumers. As digital capabilities improve and connectivity becomes omnipresent, technology will radically change every sector, creating significant economic value. India of 2022 has bested McKinsey prediction with massive investment in digital technology, increased access to mobile broadband, fibre-optic connectivity, low-cost smartphones. This has ushered a wave of technological entrepreneurship.
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India’s infrastructure deficit is very high and the task to upgrade is humongous, misses, therefore, are bound to happen.
First, Indian Railways. It was in ‘ICU’ earlier and has now slipped into terminal ‘coma’, its signature projects are languishing, key structural reforms are jinxed, finances in tatters and morale low.
Second, housing for all by 2022. As the programme is ambitious, misses will happen – at least, it recognises that the problem needs urgent fix. Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, rural and urban, has made a dent but needs fast-tracking.
Third, smart city mission has not proved smart, so far. In 100 chosen cities – both brownfield and greenfield – the mission is lagging in both quantitative and qualitative impact.
Fourth, disrupted urban mobility. Urban India is gridlocked, metro rail has poor ridership, except in Delhi, and lack of buses makes mobility difficult; there is no space for pedestrians and cyclists on city roads. Complete absence of multi-modal integration is another sore point, which is driving urban India towards more private car usage.
Five, water woes. Despite the Modi government connecting 9.5 crore poor households to a water tap under the ‘Har Ghar, Nal Se Jal’, I submit ‘Dilli abhi duur hai’. Access to 24/7 water is a pipe dream even in metropolitan areas, ground water levels have plummeted, drinking water is not potable and India stares at Day Zero, sooner or later.
Six, national infrastructure pipeline got bigger from 6,835 projects to 9,335. But this needs an investment to the tune of Rs 108 trillion. It has no financial close. It was to be funded 18-20 per cent by the Centre, 24-26 per cent by states and the balance through an eclectic mix of private sector investment and asset monetisation. Lack of financing remains a spoiler.
The next two misses are again urban problems. With India’s urban population set to cross 600 million-mark soon, and despite Swachh 2.0 and AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation), there is nothing to choose between a Delhi and Chennai, a Mumbai and a Bengaluru, or a Hyderabad and Kolkata. It is a mountain of solid waste and stinking sewage all around. Even with Modi at the helm, urban revival will need efforts of epic proportions to fix the mess.
I leave this landscape opaque. My list of challenges may conceal more than what they reveal, but here they are: finding adequate finance for projects, delivery on time, mothballing undoable and unneeded projects, appreciating the problems of India @2031, fixing disrupted human and freight mobility, decarbonising infrastructure, rebooting power distribution and finally, checking scientific and institutional corruption. Modi’s India cannot just stay at 85th position in the transparency index.
India @75 is past and passe, it is time to rethink and reimagine Indian infrastructure @Amrit Kaal.
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Akhileshwar Sahay is a noted urban transport infrastructure expert and President, advisory services at BARSYL, a consulting firm. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication or the company he works with.
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