The way things are

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

At the Indraprastha station of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.-R.V. MOORTHY

At the Indraprastha station of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.-R.V. MOORTHY

THE slogan made famous by Barack Obama is one that can serve for all those who want to make a difference to the way things are. Most importantly, it can serve as a succinct mission statement for our governments both Central and State if they really want to improve the quality of life of people. Yes, we can. Because they can if they want to. There are different agencies in the country that have demonstrated this in very strong terms.

There is, to start with, the incomparable Delhi Metro. That it has been set up and functions the way it does bears eloquent testimony to the determination of E. Sreedharan, the man who made it possible, but it is a little more than that. It shows that even in Delhi, where, over the years, social behaviour has made the Wild West look polite and very genteel, it is possible to have a metro system that is world class, not only in its set-up but in the way it works.

There are the two new airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore, where, again, we see for ourselves that it is possible to have airports that are no less sophisticated than any in any part of the world even though they may be modest in terms of size.

And there is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Despite failings in some areas, it has been found to have substantially achieved what it was set up to do in several parts of the country, notably in Rajasthan. This is not an assessment of government agencies but of independent groups that have been, if anything, more critical than complimentary.

Not the least, by any means, is the flawless launch and operation of Chandrayaan-1 by the Indian Space Research Organisation. If Indias capabilities needed to be spelt out, this, more than anything else, did just that. The country can do what the best in the world are doing and will, in a short while, catch up with the finest achievements in this field.

There are other achievements, some big and some small, that underscore the slogan Yes We Can very clearly. But then there are those instances where, inexplicably, what was not just possible but was actually being done well has collapsed or waddled into a maze of procedures because of what appears to be the greed of a number of people from the Ministers down to officials at different levels.

The leading example of this is the National Highway Development Project (NHDP). Work on this started several years ago, but even today, a leading journal reported, of the total length of 34,097 kilometres only 10,267 km has been completed. And in the nearly five years that the United Progressive Alliance has been in power, progress has been disgracefully slow. Of the total length of the highways covered, as much as 17,458 km has not even been awarded.

What is truly frightening is that the Central government does not seem to be very bothered about the fact that it has done virtually nothing about this situation in its tenure, and it has clever people such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia and P. Chidambaram, not to mention the Prime Minister himself, who know only too well how crucial a road transportation network is to a developing economy. And it is not only the highways; the ports have remained more or less what they were decades ago, as have the cargo terminals in airports. What this does to the import and export of goods can well be imagined.

If that is the condition of our national highways, it is no surprise that other roads in the States are no better today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Most are reduced to swamps of mud and stone during the rains in the 21st century, when road-building techniques have advanced elsewhere from those used in the 19th century. This, with the launch of Chandrayaan-1, could well be used by Minister for Tourism and Culture Ambika Soni as part of her Incredible India campaign.

We have been told that even though Indias growth will reduce to around 7 or 7.5 per cent, it will still be the second highest growth rate in the world. That is small consolation when the reduction from the earlier levels will mean job losses, less production, and a slowing down in sectors such as construction, all of which tend to have a cascading effect. True, the Central government has rightly emphasised that very large amounts of funds will be made available for infrastructure development, but in the hands of the Ministers concerned, one wonders what the result will be.

One Minister who has actually done what he said he would do, at least partially, is Praful Patel. The two new airports speak for his determination to change the face of civil aviation, as does his merger of Air India and Indian Airlines.

The renovation of the Mumbai airport has been admirably done, and his opening up of smaller airports to provide air links to people who have not had them so far deserves to be commended. In his time there are more first-time flyers than ever before even though the economic downturn has hit this growth in recent months.

Unfortunately, the rotten apple in the basket, which threatens to ruin everything, is the disaster in Delhi called Indira Gandhi International airport, which is being renovated by a company, which apparently set up the airport in Hyderabad. The airport has dreadful parking arrangements and is in complete chaos in times of fog or when there is any other problem, and its state-of-the-art runway built at a cost of over Rs.1,000 crore is mysteriously not available for use.

To go back for a minute to those who console themselves with the growth rate. Whatever the figures, a look at our cities, towns and villages speaks for itself. They are the same ramshackle, rickety symbols of poverty and deprivation that they were two decades ago. Such changes as there are have been for the middle classes and the rich. The poor have remained, by and large, as poor as before, and the numbers below the poverty line have not changed to any substantial degree.

This year is the last this government will have to do something that is at least visibly decisive to make Yes We Can sound a little more real. The tragedy is, of course, that we can; the achievements show that. We simply do not do it for other reasons.

Primarily, it is because those in power do not really want to do it. They know they can but choose not to. Why they choose not to we generally know, and that is the real challenge before this government. Can it, as a government, decide without any riders or conditions added, that it will take concrete visible steps to set the country on the road it had professed it would five years ago? And then actually take the first of those steps?

The year is still young, and there is still an air of expectation. Everyone agrees that 2008 was a terrible year. Will 2009 be any different? It can so easily be.

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