In October 1963, while inaugurating the Bhakra dam on the Sutlej river in Himachal Pradesh, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru used the evocative phrase “temples of modern India” to describe the infrastructural milestones in the formative years of India’s post-Independence economic rebuilding. The dam, which took nearly 15 years to build, was seen as part of the attempts to modernise the economy with physical enablers like electricity generation and roadways as well as social enablers like education.
In the seven decades since Independence (a reasonable timeframe for evaluation), infrastructural challenges have formed a long arc in India’s national economy, extending from the Nehruvian era to the first few years of the third decade of the 21st century. In the intervening period, the challenges of developing and maintaining a wide range of infrastructure have grown manifold, often intersecting with the political economy of development. But that hasn’t, by any means, shifted focus from the pivotal role envisaged by different regimes for infrastructure in powering India’s development story.
No wonder that, speaking from the ramparts of Red Fort on August 15 last year, prime minister Narendra Modi announced India’s $1.2 trillion national infrastructure plan, Gati Shakti, aimed at boosting productivity of industries and the economy as a whole. This, in turn, is hoped to generate jobs and even help India expand the use of cleaner fuels to attain the country’s climate goals.
The emphasis on infrastructure is also central to any chance of India coming close to achieving the current government’s ambitious target of a $5 trillion economy. That is acknowledged by estimates in the Economic Survey 2021-22 that suggested India will need to pump around $1.4 trillion into infrastructure until 2024-25 to make a $5 trillion economy a realistic goal.
Naturally, this is easier said than done, more so as the world grapples with demand and supply uncertainties triggered by the pandemic and further exacerbated by the Ukraine war in eastern Europe. More often than not, the reflections on the challenges facing India’s infrastructure imperatives are confined to academic disciplines of economics or economic geography, niche media commentary, or the seminar circuits of public policy or think tanks, or the generalist deliberations of public administration.
However, it is important that the awareness and informed discussions about such challenges go beyond esoteric inquiry. Moreover, a solution-driven roadmap to address such challenges has to offer and engage informed perspectives. India’s Infrastructure Challenges, published by the Centre for Development Policy and Practice, is an effort in this direction. Co-authored by civil servant Amir Ullah Khan and journalist Ashish Gupta, it turns its gaze to dissecting India’s infrastructure scene and, in the process, offers a prescriptive route to overcome roadblocks in the way.
Coming from different vantage points of looking at infrastructure, the authors have drawn on their hands-on experiences in studying and administering projects as part of bureaucracy, as well as reporting and analysing its various facets. That, however, hasn’t come in the way of blending data-driven empirical insights in the book with a holistic view of the overall infrastructure challenges in policy-making and implementation. The linkages and considerable overlapping means that an interdisciplinary approach to the different forms of physical and social infrastructure has a latent presence in the book.
After a brief survey of the historical strands of India’s infrastructure journey, which the authors trace to ancient, mediaeval and colonial, the data-rich spotlight is turned to specific infrastructure, including infra financing, power, smart cities, highways, telecom, water, railways, aviation, and key human development components like healthcare and higher education. In analysing the current state of these sectors, the authors have left a useful, lucidly written repository for students and general citizenry to dig into.
The authors are alert to the scourge of bottlenecks stifling infrastructure projects in India, delays being one of the more striking ones. The spillover perils of delayed projects cannot be overstated, particularly for an economy that is limping back to normalcy after the pandemic. , for instance, the union ministry of statistics and programme implementation informed the parliament that out of 1,568 central projects, as many as 721 (46 percent) were delayed. Ninety-one projects (65 percent) were delayed in the petroleum ministry, 127 (60 percent) in railways, and 301 (36 percent) in road transport and highways. The projects under state governments do not, by any means, promise encouraging numbers either.
The book could have cut down its flab a bit, and its abrupt straddling of different time periods can be jarring. This is probably a result of chapters sometimes reading like islands adrift, not woven together with a running thread and placed in a coherent analytical frame. Warts and all, the book would stand in good stead for students, experts and common citizenry looking to decode the vast expanse of India’s infrastructure needs, ambitions and challenges. In combining empirical insight with prescriptive insight, the book has stuck to the core of its inquiry.
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.