Narendra Modi's economic vision is impractical trickery at best

Narendra Modi has much to thank Somnath Bharti for, or perhaps I am overstating the case and the vast majority of India’s business journalists, in their hurry to see Modi coronated, would have forfeited a critical examination of his grand vision unveiled in Delhi even without the AAP distraction.

Consider the list – bullet trains linking the country, IITs in every state, a hundred new cities and the perennial and grandiose BJP dream of river linking.

The economics of high-speed trains has been known for a while. In a 2011 piece in the Economist, the author points out that only the Tokaido route in Japan connecting "35 million people in greater Tokyo to the 20 million residents of the Kansai cluster of cities comprising Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nara" makes economic sense and all other such routes in Japan "lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling.’’

 Narendra Modis economic vision is impractical trickery at best

AFP

Perhaps, when Modi said, "Mitron, chunav jitney ke liye dole, dole, dole …phir bhi sarkar dole rahi hai’’ he just meant that the Congress was no match for him even where wasteful expenditure was concerned.

The idea of IITs in every state again defies the reality of recent experience. It suggests Modi has made no attempt to understand the problems that have cropped up in setting up eight new IITs over the recent past. Opened in 2008 and 2009, they are still struggling to get off the ground, as Siddhartha Gupta, an IITian himself has documented in a recent article. CNR Rao, awarded the Bharat Ratna, has been quoted in the piece as saying that "… you can’t create a good IIT by the stroke of a pen and a newspaper announcement’’.

Rao has further noted that the faculty problem that dogs the new IITs will not be easily solved, and that even the existing IITs "have a second-rate faculty and first rate students. It has always been the case’’. At a time when even the best IIT will not rank among the top 150 academic institutions in the world, expanding an already frayed brand seems self-defeating.

You can put down both these announcements to ignorance. Modi shows little sign of actually delving into the details of the grandiose schemes he announces, so perhaps it is his staff that has failed to do even the most basic of homework.

But some of the other announcements he has made, suggest that Modi is only interested in the rhetorical impact of his vision, rather than its practicality. The river linking project had been deservedly shelved with the fading away of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Given that a major component of the river linking project is the construction of canals linking the rivers, Modi’s own abysmal record over the construction of the canal comprising the Sardar Sarovar irrigation system, should have alerted him to the fact that this is a project that will not work.

In 2009, after travelling through Gujarat I wrote a cover story for the then unknown Open Magazine, which I then elaborated in my recent book Waters Close Over Us. I noted that the canal network was supposed to have been completed by 2010, but by 2009 "of the proposed 74,626 km of canals, only 19,500 km had been built. In the three years since … the Gujarat government has added a further 289.22 km to the network.’’

Much of the work that remains, involves the construction of field channels which actually deliver water to the farmer. With construction still caught up in the difficulty of land acquisition and the hostility of farmers to any attempt at acquiring their land, over 90 percent of Gujarat’s share of water from the dam continues to go waste. Thanks to this tardy progress, the cost-benefit ratio of the entire project has become so skewed that the Sardar Sarovar Dam cannot ever justify itself in economic terms thanks to the ten years of the Narendra Modi administration. Effectively, it is independent India’s largest planned disaster.

But then again, such is Modi’s ability to create hype around himself in the name of development, that he has even turned this disaster into a PR success. This has been helped by the fact that even many of those critical of him over the 2002 violence continue to believe that he embodies their vision of development.

North of Ahmedabad, where the Narmada main canal travels through a tunnel below the bed of the Sabarmati, some of the canal water has been diverted into the river.

The Sabarmati which for the last fifty years had run dry for part of the year has been turned perennial. Obviously the displacement of ten of thousands of people along the Narmada was not undertaken to provide boat rides for the picnicking residents of Ahmedabad. But this is a necessity for the river front project conceived by Modi for his capital city. Highs rises are coming up on either side of the embankments being constructed to confine the Sabarmati/ Narmada and at the very least a riverfront requires a river.

Eventually though, long years after it was supposed to, the canal network will be completed and there will be no water to spare for the Sabarmati. When the high-rises finally take shape along the river, they will be staring at a dry bed for a great part of the year. By then Modi may well have escaped the state to carry out the same sleight of hand on a national scale.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2014 16:30:08 IST