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The Case For A Nike Government

Omkar Goswami


There are few, if any, among India ís intelligentsia who donít have enormous regard for the intellect, integrity and persona of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. When Sonia Gandhi unveiled her political masterstroke of nominating him as the Prime Minister, every right-thinking person rejoiced. Here was a man who forged the first wave of reforms and helped pull India out of a huge mess in 1991; surely, he had to be the man to again drive reforms and raise India ís global profile in the 21st century.


Given the respect that Dr. Singh enjoys, it is not surprising that we have all given him the latitude to gradually carve his agenda for the nation. We all recognised that he had to deal with an unwieldy coalition consisting of strange bedfellows like Laloo Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Shibu Soren; moreover, he has had to grapple with the Left, which has enjoyed the luxury of wielding power with no responsibility by supporting the government from outside. 


Six months have passed. Almost imperceptibly, there are signs in newspapers that the honeymoon period is coming to an end, and that commentators now want to see palpable action from Dr. Singhís team.


Its not as if the economy is doing badly. Far from it. There is every sign that 2004-05 will end up with around 6.5 per cent GDP growth which, coming on the back of 8.2 per cent growth in 2003-04, will be very creditable. Industrial production and manufacturing are doing well, with both exceeding 7.5 per cent growth. The services sector is growing at around 8 per cent plus ó the sixth time in the last eleven years. Yes, there is the spectre of rising inflation; and yes, the fiscal deficit of the central and state governments are still far too high. But, all said and done, among the large economies of the world, India is still the second fastest growing country ó second only to China .


The worry of most commentators is that we havenít seen any significantly decisive set of moves in the direction of faster economic reform. Consider the countryís highways, for instance. As on 31 October 2004, of the 5,846 kilometres that comprise the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) project, four-laning and six-laning has been completed for 3,294 kilometres; and projects are apparently under implementation for the remaining 2,552 kilometres. Yet, it is a fact that after the new government came into power, the road programme has slowed down considerably ó and according to some, has even come to a halt. The Prime Minister and the people of India need to know what is the status of the 2,552 kilometres that are allegedly under implementation. What is happening to the contracts? Which sectors have slowed down and why? What and where exactly are the slippages? And what is the target date for the NHAI and Minister T.R. Baalu to announce completion of the GQ project? I donít know whether the Prime Minister of India has been given these answers. The people of India have not.


There were five reasons why the GQ project was such an obvious success during the tenure of the previous government. First, Dr. Singhís predecessor raised a clarion cry for highways and, thereby, made it a political mission. Second, having made it such, he ensured that a sizeable chunk of the financing was in place through the cess on petrol and diesel. Third, the highway project was being monitored on a fortnightly basis by the Prime Ministerís Office. Fourth, General Khanduri ó Mr. Baaluís predecessor at the ministry ó was an efficient and honest man with an army background, and a person who took this on as a mission. And fifth, the good general was backed up by an excellent chief of the NHAI.


The success of the National Highway Development Programme was managerial. Targets were set; contracts were awarded transparently and expeditiously; targets were regularly monitored; and the people concerned were so chosen that they could be expected to deliver. This is what I call the Nike form of governance: you know what the problem is, you know what needs to be done, now ďJust Do ItĒ.


Six months down the line, it is imperative that the Prime Ministerís Office resurrect this programme, give it equal, if not greater, managerial impetus and accelerate the process of implementation. The GQ needs to be quickly completed. More significantly, little has happened to the North-South-East-West project ó7,274 kilometre long highways that will link Srinagar to Kanyakumari, and Silchar to Porbandar. Only 675 kilometres have been completed, with another 388 kilometres apparently under implementation. Clearly, this project needs the countryís utmost attention ó and in India that can only happen if PMO decides to take ownership.


What is true of roads is also true of airports. The only saving grace of a disaster called Mumbai Airport is that it makes Delhi ís Indira Gandhi Airport look good in comparison. Forget Singapore ís Changi, Dubai , Kuala Lumpur , Hong Kong or the Pudong Airport at Shanghai . Not a single Indian airport can light a candle to even Bangkok ís. Almost eighteen months have passed since we were told about the radical modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi airports. What has been done? When can we expect business travellers, tourists and returning Indians to disembark at a modern facility? Can we get a progress report of inactivity? Can we know the target dates to which the government will be committed? And speaking of airports, what is the state of play regarding the proposed international airport at Bangalore ?


Everyone agrees that the single largest determinant to growth is infrastructure. The Prime Minister is too good an economist to believe otherwise. Can we then expect from him some clear action regarding infrastructure? Letís forget about what to do with $15 billion of foreign exchange. Letís just focus on time-bound implementation. Highways and airports are good enough places to start. So, hereís waiting for the transformation of government by coalition to a government for action. 


Published: Financial Express, December 2004


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