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PM's penchant for showpiece projects

Last updated on: April 10, 2004 14:22 IST

Mr Vajpayee has a penchant for showpiece projects. So we have the Golden Quadrilateral, an evocative name for a project to improve India's main road arteries. There is also the Sagarmala, an equally picturesque name for developing a string of ports along India's coast line and one that can become a metaphor for recapturing India's maritime heritage.

Then there is the river-linking programme, which has not been branded in the same way but which nevertheless has a grand, if not grandiose, vision: linking the basins of some of the world's biggest river systems. And there is talk now of an ultra-fast train that will take you from Delhi to Mumbai (or back) in an imagination-stirring six hours.

In their different ways, these have some of the transformational resonance of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and Operation Flood of the 1970s and 1980s, but a more appropriate comparison would be with the Bhakra-Nangal and the steel mills and the institutes of technology, and therefore claimants in today's context to that Nehruvian phrase of the 1950s, the "temples of modern India."

Every country at some point feels the need for the showpiece project that lifts the national spirit and makes a statement of resurgence. The moon-landing project that President Kennedy announced in the early 1960s captured the imagination of the US and the whole world.

Japan built the Shinkansen "bullet trains" in time for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, to assert that the country had risen from the ashes of World War II. France has its TGV, and now China has its Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze.

So why not India, especially since Mr Vajpayee is not a latter-day Tughlak constructing white elephants, or a Shah Jahan building vast mausoleums. And no, he isn't building a temple to Ram either. Instead, Mr Vajpayee is focusing on transport infrastructure and water development, and you can't get more basic than that.

So there are no obvious arguments against such projects, and many points in their favour. Rajiv Gandhi learnt from the success of the space programme and dreamt up the "technology missions" as his answer to the organisational challenge of achieving development objectives. Mr Vajpayee has been cleverer and focused on concrete projects rather than amorphous programmes. Nevertheless, there must be qualifications.

The first is that the grand project often diverts resources from more pressing needs. A showpiece train between Delhi and Mumbai will divert funds from the railways' systemic modernisation. It will also prevent the development of more useful passenger services, like fast inter-city trains.

For instance, there is still no truly overnight train from Hyderabad to Mumbai, a distance of barely 700 km. The river project was a bad idea to begin with, and an undesirable leftover from Morarji Desai, the last prime minister to believe that such a project made sense. Now that the energetic Suresh Prabhu has resigned the chairmanship of the project in order to fight an election, the thing should be given a quiet burial and more sensible water development planned.

Even with the Sagarmala, there are questions as to whether the country really needs a port every 75 or 100 km, and whether it doesn't make more sense to have fewer really efficient and viable ports.

The second qualification is do-ability. No one can dispute the need for the Golden Quadrilateral. Every two-bit country has better roads than India, and our roads (like our airports) have long been a national embarrassment.

But if you haven't noticed, the completion date for the project has moved back from December 2003 to December 2004 and now to some date in 2005. There is also a growing buzz about poor quality work, corruption and poor maintenance of even the good roads that have been built. The grand vision is fine, but you also need effective project execution.

On balance, I am in favour of visionary projects, but they do need to make economic sense. And since Mr Vajpayee is essentially a big picture man, he needs lieutenants who will attend to the detail and deliver an end product that does not become an embarrassment, like some of Nehru's steel mills or Indira Gandhi's over-reaching 'garibi hatao' promise.

In short, he needs people like C Subramaniam of the Green Revolution and V Kurien of Operation Flood.

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