For Public Infrastructure, Timing is crucial

Public Infrastructure in India needs to be built at a very rapid pace over next few years to quickly close the gap and recover some part of the last 10 years of ‘policy paralysis’ that had plagued the country between 2004 to 2014. Apart from the urgent need of public infrastructure, whether its drinking water projects, sanitation or road projects, economic performance is also greatly affected when projects fail to get off the ground.

The article linked below shows a clear case of how public expenditure rises as public infrastructure projects get delayed due to various reasons. This is not just a huge loss to the public exchequer but also a great loss for nation building.

Public infrastructure spending is also a tool to trigger economic activity. So when public projects are stalled, the potential of providing the required economic boost at the right time, is also lost. Taking this opportunity to invest in public infrastructure  is, particularly, crucial in times of a global economy downturn, as is mentioned in the article below.

Citizen participation and Public Projects

Public infrastructure cannot remain mired in endless planning and policy debates and discussions. While discussions are important, they need to be addressed very strictly in a predesignated time frame. Any spill over debates tend to derail public projects. While public participation and feedback is important, it needs to follow a strict timetable and methods, within which, citizens can raise concerns and flag important issues regarding proposed public projects. However, when citizen participation takes the form of activism or protests, public infrastructure projects fail to take off. Activism against a public infrastructure projects not only overruns the cost of the project, but causes irreparable damage to other linked aspects like economy & job generation. In most cases, activism just creates an unending loop of discussions leading to unfortunate delays. More often than not, public infrastructure projects that get mired in this loop, rarely become successful. While, activism is often relevant, quite likely highlighting a particular issue of the community that may have been overlooked, it also tends to be philosophical and theoretical.

Activism tends to be myopic

Activism is also, without exception, extremely myopic. For example, if protests are about environmental damage, activists rarely look beyond environmental issues, mostly ignoring the economic and social benefits that the project will accrue. Also, activism tends to be person or group specific. It is more about a personal opinion that translates into a public narrative and manifests into protests against a public project.

Most of the time, activism against public infrastructure project tends to be so myopic that the larger concerns of the community are ignored to forward the cause of a few peoples’ opinions seeking to become a public narrative. Without realizing, the delays due to activism lead to what we know as ‘no action condition’. This condition is arrived at due to a deadlock and is more damaging, economically, socially and environmentally. In fact, it is observed that ‘no action’ is more harmful than the combined social and environmental impacts of any public infrastructure project.

Timing is Crucial

Any public infrastructure project has a life of its own. It’s conceived, usually as a reaction to an issue, like traffic congestion. So the need of the project is often immediate and urgent. But the democratic processes and the various permissions, reviews and ensuing discussions creates a loop of anywhere between 3-5 years for the project to actually start turning into a reality.

Despite the time taken by the government to give permissions & approvals, this is the crucial timing for the project to take off. If it doesn’t, it’s need starts to become irrelevant. And if further delays happen, the overrun costs and the original design starts to make the project look unattractive. So the success, even if partial, now squarely depends upon its ability to get off ground and get built as soon as possible. If this crucial timing is lost, the project should be officially scrapped and newly designed to suit the new requirements. This re-looping, of course, will mean a delay of more than 10 years.

In case of public infrastructure projects that are aimed at long term benefits versus short term demand, the timing and its success is even more crucial. Since it is a future looking project, it’s short term benefits are rarely attractive. Whereas,it’s short term disadvantages are glaringly apparent. So it takes a very different approach for governments to put up such future oriented public infrastructure projects. The most relevant example of this type of infrastructure is the Metro or Dams across rivers.

We often visit other countries and marvel at the future planning seen in some of the cities, while ruing the lack of it in India. But the truth is that Indian society rarely supports expenditure and planning that’s aimed at the future. Let’s look at the case of the PuneMetro project. When it was conceived almost 10-12 years ago, people questioned its need for the city. Although all trends indicated that Pune’s traffic is going to worsen over time, the situation was not as bad as it is now. As the project moved past its various hurdles of permissions, funding, protests, it emerged 10 years later to a very pressing traffic situation of the city. That critical juncture for the PuneMetro project is NOW! If it can become a reality, it should become one immediately. Not tomorrow or day after, but Today!

Like for any public infra project, this projects needs political will and social willingness. Even if one is missing, the project will not be a success. To begin the debates on planning this project differently now is akin to a fresh start. Keeping the fact in mind, that every public infra projects takes 3-5 years minimum to see the light of day, PuneMetro redesign will mean going into a re-loop with no end to the tunnel in sight. Another crucial aspect to success of any public infra project is the fact that the timing of all its important aspects should match and come together. The need, the political will and the available funding needs to match.

Pune has witnessed, over years, very active citizenry who has kept a diligent watch on government projects and spending. However, role of this active citizenry seems to be changing over last 10 years. The objective of keeping watch seems to have converted into almost a single minded objective of opposing and stalling government projects. Many groups meet regularly and discuss and debate government projects and policies. But these groups seem to have become intolerant over years. Personal opinions and perceptions of a few have become so sacrosanct that diverging views are neither heard nor accepted. Most of these groups rely on the inefficiencies of the government bodies to fuel their own narrative. Further, these groups are also being milked by vested interests and political outfits to further their respective agendas.

What this has resulted into is an endless debate and discussion on public infrastructure projects. This is leading to cost overruns and the city is severely lagging behind in developing and building essential infrastructure at a speed that is absolutely essential for the city. When and if projects do go through, the crucial time is lost. This leads to situations like mismatched political willingness and funding availability. And thus Pune has not seen very few well done successful public infrastructure projects.

Public Projects need to take off and not go into a Policy Paralysis

The reason why we Indians chose to overturn a government stuck in policy paralysis was precisely this. No government decision is absolutely fool proof. No project design is completely without faults. And success of most public policy and projects will be seen only after a long period of time. But the criticality of public infrastructure lies in its timing. If we miss it, we will have lost the plot!

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