In closing the meeting on Wednesday at which he hoped to give a big push to infrastructure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a speech in which he mentioned the word “bottleneck” three times. It is the persistent tragedy of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s leadership that it knows what the problem is and yet seems unable to do much about it. The inter-ministerial meeting that Dr Singh chaired is, at least, an important visible attempt to do something. The meeting was attended by ministers and secretaries of what the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) described as “key” infrastructure industries: power, railways, roads, shipping, civil aviation and coal. At the meeting, targets were collectively agreed on and finalised for the entire year. Power, for example, was set a target of increasing generation by 6.2 per cent; Coal India Ltd will increase its supply of coal by 8.8 per cent. Most of the other targets were less tangible, requiring ministries to finish administrative processes — awarding 18 per cent more road contracts than last year, for example. This is a weakness in the process that needs further scrutiny. Yet it is unquestionably an important effort and one that needs to be followed up. Dr Singh said that he was prepared to do precisely that, adding that he expected quarterly progress reports.
However, there continue to be major lacunae in the approach. There is, of course, the fact that too many “targets” are on paper – the awarding of contracts, the finalising of projects – rather than in real terms. In addition, the repeated mention of “bottleneck” should surely have alerted the meeting’s participants to what the true bottlenecks for new facilities are: land acquisition and environmental clearances. Both processes are politically contentious, and are currently bound up in red tape. Yet the land acquisition law continues to be debated; and, as for environmental clearances, it seems “collective ownership” over infrastructure targets cannot include the ministry of environment and forests. Why were the environment minister and the environment secretary not included in this process? Surely having them sign on to the project-finalisation targets would have been a big step forward in ensuring that the ministry is a partner in infrastructure development, and not a hurdle. The petroleum ministry, too, for some reason was not included in the process, although it is as crucial for increasing growth as any of the others. It is not clear why this decision was taken. The gaps in the decision-making process that should have exerted “collective ownership” over the targets, thus, are considerable.
The final question that must be asked emerges from Dr Singh’s own remarks. “I would expect,” he said, that ministries would “very expeditiously resolve any inter-ministerial differences or turf battles that may arise as we move forward.” If Dr Singh truly expects this, then he is an optimist of the highest order. One of the primary reasons for UPA-II’s paralysis has been that its ministries have been set against each other as often as not — and Dr Singh has not stepped in to resolve it. Instead of expecting his ministers to resolve any differences, he should have warned them that the PMO would resolve the issue for them — and neither side might like what the PMO decided.