PM Narendra Modi has been pushing infrastructure development relentlessly over the last four years.
You and I come by road and rail, but economists travel on infrastructure.
Build it, goes the Americanism, and they will come. China’s 10% plus growth through 30 of the Deng Xiaoping years was predicated on exports to the United States and massive, impressive, domestic infrastructure development.
India is playing catch-up, though it is the domestic market for us, but under Narendra Modi it means business. Infrastructure is an article of faith for him. It has worked well in his home state of Gujarat.
Modi is indeed the focal point of this and other new BJP thrusts, because the party, before he took over the top job, was of a different kind. It was derisively dubbed the “Brahmin-Bania” party, propped up by RSS Hindutva, but still unable to will itself into power.
The Vajpayee years were the only other time the BJP ruled. They were characterised by a massive coalition of disparate elements. But it did yield both nuclear weaponisation for India’s security and the world-class Golden Quadrilateral system of roads.
Modi has been pushing infrastructure development relentlessly over the last four years, not least because it was the surest way to pull India out of the GDP slump it was in.
Infrastructure growth is an objective imperative too, given India’s gargantuan population grown three-fold and more since Independence. Most of what is on the ground, except in recent years, is creaky, antiquated, inadequate, engendered by decades of low growth socialism, or inherited from the British Raj.
From the late 1980s, and certainly the 1990s, infrastructure was identified as an impediment to our ambitions of rapid growth, with its bottlenecks and high costs. And it became clear that only double-digit GDP numbers can help us raise over 400 million people from abject poverty.
While infrastructure development, rather than the promotion of consumption (which has now also picked up), is indeed Modi’s “suit boot” side, there is another as well, a social democrat face working in tandem. This is distinct, in a teach-a-man-to-fish way, from the populist freebies of his socialist and communist opponents. And this face has considerably grown the BJP’s voter-base via Amit Shah’s “social engineering”, as a consequence. The limited reach in the cow belt has been transcended by embracing the humblest of the have-nots pan-India under the capacious vikas (development) umbrella.
The Modi government is now in the final stretch to general elections in 2019. It is just as well that the economy is looking up, inclusive of a good monsoon and cheer in rural India, with a number of state Assembly elections looming nearer.
But what is concrete about the Modi government’s achievements after four years? There has been, since May 2014, a palpable growth and development in roads, railways, metros, as well as laid groundwork for rapid transport systems, bullet trains and freight corridors, broadband systems and so on. Ro-ro systems are being tried out on the coast lines and inland waterways are being revived after decades.
The Bharatmala roads of the Modi years will manifest only in his second term. But when it’s done, it will establish new benchmarks in connectivity, communication and possibility in India.
Other road plans under the Act East Policy actively under execution include a new airport terminal at Guwahati just announced and road connectivity through Myanmar all the way to Thailand.
Work done in Afghanistan—a dam, roads, government buildings—and at Chabahar port in Iran, again show the inclination towards infrastructure development as diplomacy too.
At home, completion of stuck road projects after removing financial, environmental and legal impedimenta, strategic tunnels and bridges, dams, revived mining, new ports and modernisation of old ones, bypasses, widening of roads, even planting of trees are palpable.
18,000 villages outside the grid so far, sitting in the dark all these years, have now been electrified. Next target is to provide electricity to every home and business. The 100 smart cities are so far manifest in terms of masses of affordable housing. Plans are afoot to have everyone in a pucca home by 2022.
The nuclear power programmne, long mired in motivated NGO protests and delivery problems from suppliers, are now also moving ahead.
There are new international airports on the anvil at Jewar in Uttar Pradesh, in Navi Mumbai, and more airport terminals at Chennai and Lucknow to cope with present and future demand.
Old World War II airstrips from the Burma campaign have been refurbished and reopened to meet military and civilian needs of present times. Ditto the famous Stilwell Road.
Brand new strategic border roads are being built in remote places of Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Uttarakhand.
Pilgrimage circuits such as the Char Dham in the Garhwal mountains are being firmed up, with all-weather connectivity and roads. Other places such as Vaishno Devi have already been rendered more accessible by a high-tech rail line to Katra.
New railway track is being laid for the first time in decades connecting the neglected and isolated Northeast. Recent launches of ISRO satellites are being used to develop India’s own GPRS system—for peace, surveillance and war.
Metro systems as a viable mass transit system are extant in almost all the metro cities now, though much needed expansion is yet to come and will spread to as many as 38 cities in time.
The Make in India programme has worked well for electronics, particularly the assembly of cell phones, and automobile assembly/manufacture, ancillaries etc., but is grinding slowly in defence—into ship and submarine building, aircraft, tanks, modern rifles, bullet-proof vests, night-sight equipment, ammunition, armoured carriers, helicopters etc.
New techniques of counting employment now hint at crores of new jobs created via all this infrastructure development after all, and will no doubt provide ammunition in the election battles coming up. Now, even private sector recovery is showing up after the government’s four years of heavy lifting.
The social democratic face has not been sleeping either. Many programmes indeed are continuations of what previous governments have initiated, such as the multiple welfare schemes for the rural and urban poor. These can and have been tweaked, expanded and implemented with fewer leakages.
But there are spectacular new successes too. These include tremendous electoral wins that have brought 22 states into the NDA fold. And major economic reform, like a single unified indirect tax—the GST. The latter, after a contentious start, has recently breached the Rs 1 lakh crore mark in monthly collections for the first time, with signs that it could keep growing at 3%-5% per month.
Breaking through the decades old logjam for the armed forces pay parity and welfare programme under OROP was another huge accomplishment.
And then there are the massive Aadhar linkages that have eliminated lakhs of fake subsidy accounts. The significant expansion of the direct tax base is a new phenomenon after the disruption of the shock demonetisation.
In foreign affairs, there is a new warmth, cooperation, and respect for India all over the world. The smacking of Pakistan via surgical strikes and standing up to China at Doklam have not gone unnoticed.
Ordinary people too can obtain passports in days now.
Many long-standing and intractable subsidies have been removed though the fuel taxes are decidedly onerous even if the money is purportedly being used for infrastructure building.
Apex level corruption too has been stamped out for the very first time. Defaulting businessmen are in the process of having all their assets confiscated.
Micro loans without collateral have been provided to lakhs of people running tiny businesses. Muslim women have been shielded from the ignominy of triple talaq for the first time.
Self-attestation of required document copies, the CBDT dealing with income tax assesses almost exclusively online, are part of hundreds of such improvements.
80% of all income tax assesses have to pay no more than 5% tax, or nothing at all, after availing various tax-saving incentives.
Going beyond welfare handouts, thousands of LPG gas connections and cylinders have been provided to the poor at subsidised prices. 80% of the population willy-nilly now has a bank account and despite much derision, these accounts collectively hold crores of rupees now.
The thing is, administrative reform and welfare programmes, however plentiful, can be twisted and belittled. But how do you deny the evidence of infrastructure development? There is a reason why nearly a century later we still call the seat of power Lutyens’ Delhi.