Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 14, 2020
India’s urban infrastructure initiative: An opportunity for technical self-reliance

In Dec 2019, India’s Finance Minister had announced a five-year-long National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP). During the period, government intended to invest ₹ 102 lakh crore on infrastructure projects across various sectors. Urban infrastructure was a major component of this outlay along with roads, energy and railways. This national amount would evidently get supplemented by infrastructure provisions in the State budgets. Additionally, city governments that have their own budgets would provide for city infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the pandemic Covid-19 intervened in March 2020. This has had an unprecedentedly huge and negative impact on the Indian economy, triggered by disruption and inactivity imposed through prolonged lockdowns. Nor have the state and city economies been spared, where, in some cases, the effect has been even more disastrous. Post lockdowns, India has dismantled the regime of restrictions and wants the economy to open up and get back on its rails. States and cities have followed suit, though cinemas, schools and colleges in most parts of the country have still not been allowed to operate. While public consumption is likely to pick up, demand may still take some time to fully revive. Central, state and city governments would therefore have to lead spending from the front, as far as possible. Infrastructure programmes that were ongoing and got halted due to the pandemic were plentiful and covered urban sectors such as metro works, major roads and bridges, flyovers, housing, public bus transport, water, sewerage and waste disposal facilities. These will now have to be re-started.

The reactivation of massive infrastructure works would mean that in the coming months India would be in the midst of an infrastructure revolution. Every conceivable kind of infrastructure in different parts of the country by different governmental organisations that comprise a host of small, large and gigantic projects will get undertaken. To illustrate, some months back, Chennai Municipal Corporation announced the interesting proposal of infrastructure works to reclaim the Pallikaranai marshland in order to facilitate the transport of solid waste to Perungudi landfill site. Seven foot-over-bridges with escalator facilities, a water museum and air-conditioned luxury toilets were also announced. According to the Union Urban Development Minister, 15 more cities are likely to take up metro works, apart from the ten where metros are already operational.  In Mumbai, apart from the Metro, the mammoth coastal road project has begun. MMRDA is putting up the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) that would connect a rather disengaged area of Navi Mumbai with the mega city. A new airport in Navi Mumbai is being constructed, destined to offload part of the pressure that has got built up on the Mumbai airport. The makeover of the waterfront is being undertaken by Mumbai Port Trust apart from its comprehensive Development Plan for its geographical area. Many other projects are spread all over the country and include those in Bengaluru, Varanasi, Hyderabad, Amravati, Patna, Bhubaneshwar and a score of other metropolitan cites and beyond. The national government seeks to provide a massive push to infrastructure and connectivity, including roadways, railways, waterways, as well as modernisation of ports and industries. The infrastructure revolution of India is in turn being driven by its urbanisation and the need to equip our cities with world class amenities.

While the primary objective of the infrastructure push is to provide better quality of life to the country’s citizens, there is also an opportunity in investing in India’s future technical manpower. This fits in with the Prime Minister’s announcement in May 2020 of an ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ with the aim to make India self-reliant and build in-house capacity and quality. This mission has a financial outlay of ₹ 2 million crores.

In this context, an area that needs serious consideration is the use of these infrastructure opportunities to build future and internal technical manpower. If the country has to have quality manpower, it is necessary that infrastructure organisations encourage young students to get what is called Project Based Learning (PBL) – where students get to participate in contributing to on-going projects. Such capacity building cannot be as comprehensive if it were restricted to the class-room alone. PBL will enrich the students with content knowledge. By launching them into practical handling of peculiarities of sites and conditions, they will sharpen their critical thinking and their response to specific challenges; they will in the process, embellish their creativity. Since they would be asked to present their projects, they would improve and hone their communication skills. Through all these opportunities, students will emerge more rounded as they would have supplemented their skeleton of theory with the flesh of actual practice.

The teachers have a lot to gain themselves. They would find fresh ideas for the course content that they teach. They may even have contributions to their instruction methodology. All this would lead to a much higher quality of technical professionals that are field-ready to handle the grind of tough infrastructural performance.

The teachers and students in turn would provide ideas. This group is in closest touch with fresh research, newly established technical knowledge and innovations and would surprise practitioners with thoughts that practitioners may not be aware of on account of the distance that has emerged between them and current research. The pressures of delivery on multiple projects leave practicing professionals little time to sharpen and refresh their tools. The country, through such interaction as a whole will gain through better designed projects within the country and better quality of life delivered to citizens.

These well-trained technical professionals would also be ready to go out in the wide world and win and execute projects on the strength of their merit. They would thereby contribute to the building of global infrastructure and enhance the nation’s technical reputation, similar to what we have achieved in the fields of medicine and computer software. The exploits of Indian doctors working abroad is especially relevant. The wealth of experience that doctors gather as interns and residents through their handling of a stunning variety of patients that are frighteningly large in numbers, equips them to handle patients in international hospitals much better than those trained in the rarefied atmosphere of foreign lands where on-hands experience is sparingly available.

The preparation of high-class domestic professionals would also obviate the need of hiring external technical manpower for Indian infrastructure projects. The experience of working with them has not always been happy. Sometimes, their understanding of the Indian situation has been inadequate. This in turn gets reflected in their design that gives permanence to the inadequacies leading to long-term substandard results. Many times, this is a result of insufficient attention and time spent on the project. Even more troubling has been the frequent instances of bagging projects at high cost to the project and then sub-letting the job to Indian professionals at low cost and thereby maximising their own profit. Such absentee landlordism must surely be wholly discouraged.

In a larger sense, this is a process by which a country also deepens its local democracy. The buy-in that such participation achieves through the engagement of its most creative, futuristic stakeholder has enormous democratic value. It furthers the idea of inclusion by demonstrating that we are all in it together. India currently is one of the youngest nations and it would be recklessly imprudent to let this enormous wealth get dissipated through the closure of doors of collaboration in the brick and mortar of nation building.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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