Why Do Infrastructure Projects Linger On In India?
Author Gurcharan Das once asked, “Why should it take us 15 years to get justice in courts or 12 years to build a road?”. In many cases, it takes much longer. The Delhi High Court recently said it was unfortunate that one case was pending for 30 years, even though 75 judges had given it a hearing.
The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), which was proposed by Wilbur Smith associates in mid-1962 to shorten commute radically, is still not up. It would have nearly halved the travel time from South Mumbai to Navi Mumbai, by connecting the mainland to docks. People have been waiting for more than five decades now.
But why? This is not because such projects are unusually expensive. For example, the MTHL is expected to cost Rs 11, 000 crore, but the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) expects the cost of building millions of houses to be Rs 22,50,000 crore. Such infrastructure projects are a low-hanging fruit. It may be more humanitarian to build a bridge and make hundreds of square kilometres of land accessible than to give away houses for free. This is not because projects necessarily take very long in India. The Delhi Metro project was completed faster than any other such large mass transit project in the world.
This is true not just of large-scale projects, but also of small-scale ones. People are still waiting for widening of the Pune-Nashik highway. People tend to die quite often on the Pune-Nashik road. Why do developing primary infrastructure networks take so long in India? Often, what causes shortage of housing is the absence of such infrastructural networks. The solution might not be to build more houses but to build such networks, because they cost less than building houses. For example, building water mains or sewerage networks may be more important than building low-cost housing projects. But building housing projects is more politically popular.
The single-biggest reason why projects are delayed is political resistance. The MTHL bridge, for example, was opposed by environmentalists who believed it violated coastal zone regulatory norms.
Land acquisition is a major constraint, too. It is very difficult to acquire large tracts of land in urban India, given the set of regulations that are in place. The Delhi Metro Corporation head Mangu Singh once said DMRC did not even try to acquire land in Delhi, complying with the land acquisition Bill. In many cases, opposition comes from people who live in the area and might lose their livelihood or shelter. It is possible to adequately compensate them, but authorities have not always proved to be fair in such processes. In many cases, such projects might place constraints on the environment, like water shortage. So, projects usually get locked in litigation, and it may take years or even decades to get them off the ground.
Large-scale infrastructure projects are also expensive. Though cities are relatively prosperous, and produce more than enough to cover the expense of such bridges, state governments allocate little money for infrastructure projects. So, it often requires private participation to pull them off. But, to bring in private participation, authorities will have to dilute the norms governing construction and implementation. This is usually politically unpalatable. The only way to get around such constraints will be ignoring the democratic process. This is why many argue that China's success can be partly attributed to its 'undemocratic' government.