A couple of years ago, India was implementing a rail-connected integrated check-post (ICP), with mirror facilities on either side of the land border, to facilitate trade with a neighbour. Successful implementation of the project required coordination between a host of authorities controlled by two national governments and the concerned State government.
At least four Union ministries were directly responsible. The ministry of external affairs was implementing facilities in the neighbouring economy. On the Indian side, there were home ministry-controlled Land Ports Authority (LPAI), ministry of highways, and the Indian Railways.
Adieu to silos
The involvement of three different sets of bureaucrats from foreign service, administrative service and railway service, made the proposition even more interesting. Every ministry was going at its own pace leading to planning and implementation gaps. Parts of the project were completed in time but they were unutilised for years till the matching facilities were ready.
Such situations were no exception in India’s development history till 2014. They became common during the coalition rule after liberalization (1991) and reached epic proportions during the UPA rule (2004-2014). Even the issue of biometric identity cards was subjected to inter-ministry rivalry. Media got stories. Nation suffered.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been acting against “silos” from day one. Projects suffering delays for decades suddenly got wings. Till 2014 Assam had only three bridges over the mighty Brahmaputra. In the next five years, they added three more bridges and started working on five more. At least three of them are in advanced stages of construction.
There are endless examples of how India is benefitting from this new style of governance. It has been a long time since India launched schemes to ensure rural electrification and prevent open defecation. Every time such schemes failed to achieve their target.
Modi relaunched the schemes and forced everyone to complete them within the stipulated deadline. Bureaucracy was unhappy to be sent to build toilets in a hurry. The Prime Minister had openly criticized Babus for operating from silos and robbing India of her growth opportunity.
The move (read war) against silos is now formalized by “PM GatiShakti – National Master Plan for Multi-modal Connectivity”. Approved by the cabinet committee on economic affairs, GatiShakti will integrate 18 ministries into a joint committee to implement and monitor major infrastructure projects pursued by different central ministries and state governments.
The aim is to take an integrated approach to the planning and execution of projects to ensure maximum utilization of resources and capacities. The empowered group of secretaries will not only monitor the implementation of infrastructure projects. They will also ensure efficient transportation of bulk goods like steel, coal, fertilizer etc.
The concept of multi-disciplinary initiatives is not new. The erstwhile linkage committee of coal had representation from different ministries. Similarly, the energy coordination committee used to make recommendations for the allotment of captive blocks. The formation of an empowered group of ministers became a regular affair during the UPA rule.
However, that didn’t stop silo operations in the government. More often such committees were created to accommodate powers parallel to the Prime Minister and their only job was to throw weight holding decisions at ransom. The common joke was, whenever they wanted to delay decisions, they formed a committee.
The rivalry between ministries was a common affair. The power sector used to call the shots at the linkage committee on coal. Between 2006 and 2008, the committee went on distributing LOAs (letter of allotment) to proposed thermal power projects, ignoring repeated warnings of lack of capacity from Coal India Limited.
And, when the cookie did crumble, the government brought out a Presidential Directive on CIL to give coal, that didn’t exist. The end sufferers were global investors, bankers and common taxpayers in this country. Billions of dollars were locked in idle thermal assets. Power was one major source of non-performing asset pile up at banks.
All these are fast becoming history in new India. Narendra Modi runs his government like a CEO who sets non-negotiable priorities. Technology is used in abundance to monitor performance. Geotagging of Swachh Bharat toilets and/or launch of Cowin, which delivers the vaccination certificate through mobile, created safeguards against faking achievements.
The PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation) portal launched in 2015, brought implementing agencies of all major projects under constant watch. It has also proved a great tool to identify the ground problems and address them. If the highway development agency faces non-cooperation from another authority, the issue is escalated to the highest levels of the Centre and State in no time.
The primary difference in this new style of governance is two: First, it makes project deadlines non-negotiable. Second, every stakeholder starting with the topmost leaders of the State and the Centre are made directly accountable for the progress of a priority project. In the past, there was no such accountability even for National Projects.
Conceived in 1996, work for Bogibeel Bridge in Assam was initiated by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2002. In 2007, UPA declared it as a National Project, ensuring budgetary support on priority. But in 2014, when Modi came to power, the bridge was not even half-ready. It was completed in the next four years.
GatiShakti makes accountability more stringent and institutional. The list of ministries included in the joint committee indicates how cooperation in logistics is linked to growth targets.
Apart from infrastructure and transport-related ministries and departments, (like shipping, highways, telecom, power, civil aviation, rail, IT, petroleum, renewable energy, logistics etc); there are food processing, tourism, defence production, fisheries, textiles, pharmaceuticals.
Target oriented delivery
Tourism is a major employment generator and has been a focus area of the Modi government from day one. Fisheries is an identified growth area under Atmanirbhar Bharat. Defence production witnessing sustained focus. An ambitious production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme is launched to make India an export hub of textiles, renewable gears, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
There are no blank philosophical promises, no distant timeline. The government made itself accountable by placing a charter of targets to be achieved by 2024-25 when it will seek re-election.
Oil and gas pipeline network to be doubled to 34,500 km. Cargo handling capacity at ports will increase from 1282 to 1759 million metric tons per annum. Indian Railways will witness 51 percent decongestion due to competition of critical projects. Rail cargo to increase from 1210 million metric ton in 2020 to 1600 MMT in 2024-25.
Two defence corridors with a target investment of Rs 10,000 crore each, turnover of Rs 1,70,000 crore with the export of Rs 35,000 crore. 197 mega food parks to increase processing capacity from 222 lakh metric tons to 847 lakh metric tons. 109 pharma and medical device clusters, three bulk-drug parks and four medical device parks
Such strict target-oriented functioning of the government was in the past propriety of single-party ruled China. The world took Beijing seriously because it lived up to its promises. From a poor economy (poorer than India) in 1980, they became an economic powerhouse in 20 years.
China is not the only country that prospered quickly. South Korea, Taiwan, and lately Vietnam also staged a dramatic rise. Vietnam increased its export turnover by nearly four times in 10 years. But the rise of China had robbed every excuse from democracies, particularly India, of slow growth and a large pool of poor.
May not be appreciated by India’s “Democracy Khatre Mein Hain” gang but Modi is indeed giving democracy a new lease of life by promising fast and target-oriented economic development. “Democracy can deliver,” the Prime Minister said at the 76th annual UN General Assembly meeting in September.
Democracy must deliver
The 30 years of economic reforms taught us many things. As the prosperity grew, opportunities increased, many dissents died a natural death. The red corridors have shrunk considerably. Recruitment in militant groups in the northeast is record low. Young men and women from Manipur or Mizoram today contribute a significant section of the workforce in hotels and hospitals in Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai.
But prosperity and aspiration are not one-time affairs. Upward mobility fuels expectations, particularly of the young. Fast growth helped China to fulfil the aspirations of its youth before they became old. India needs to repeat the Chinese growth story to fulfil the expectations of its young population. Excuses will not work. Democracy has to deliver. There is no second choice about it.
Delivery cannot be restricted to projects or programmes at home. Over the last two decades, India promised a wide range of infrastructure projects in the neighbourhood. They were as important to protect the country’s interest as the Belt and Road (BRI) to China. However, almost every Indian project abroad suffered delay, earning the country disrepute vis-à-vis China.
Growth is a factor of both fundamentals and sentiment. To ensure better market access in the region, India has to improve its delivery. There are plans to scale up coverage of GatiShakti to monitor select projects abroad. The aim is to stop a repetition of the ICP incident, where the foreign leg of the project suffered the most and impacted India’s trade opportunities.
(The writer is a well known veteran journalist, public policy expert and commentator)