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Vinayak Chatterjee: Transport us, Dr Mohan

Ten priorities for the High-level National Transport Development Policy Committee

Vinayak Chatterjee  |  New Delhi 

Ten priorities for the High-level National Transport Development Policy Committee

It was when Dr Manmohan Singh was the member-secretary of the Planning Commission (from April 1980 to September 1982) that India last had a serious look at Transport Policy. In 1980, a National Transport Policy Committee, under the chairmanship of the late B D Pande, a former Cabinet secretary, submitted its report. Thirty years later, as prime minister, Dr Singh probably remembered this when he requested Dr Rakesh Mohan to head a High-level National Transport Development Policy Committee in February 2010.

And he could not have made a better choice. Dr Mohan is clearly recognised as one of the foremost thinkers in India’s infrastructure domain. His passion for infrastructure policy goes back a long way to his PhD thesis in urban economics from Princeton University. In recent times, he is better known as the former secretary of the Department of Economic Affairs and former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India. He has also chaired the Expert Group on Commercialisation of Infrastructure which issued the famous Indian Infrastructure Report in 1997. He also steered the Expert Group on Railways which issued the Indian Railways Report in 2002. As chairman of this new High-level Committee, he has been conferred the rank of minister of state.

Even before the B D Pande Committee (1980), India did have some strategic thinking. In the roads and highways sector, for example, recognising the need to develop arterial routes to link the Union capital with state capitals, major seaports and other highways, the National Highways Act, 1956, was enacted. In 1957, chief-engineers (road and bridges department) of the central and state governments met in Bombay. The engineers presented a 20-year Road Development Plan (1961-81) in 1958 which is popularly known as the Bombay Plan.

The terms of reference of this latest High-level Committee are sufficiently broad to allow Dr Mohan to focus on whatever he thinks is relevant. But the task now is far more complex than what Mr Pande had to contend with in 1980. India, growing at over 9 per cent, and poised and ambitious to hit double-digit growth rates, sees “infrastructure bottlenecks” as the single-largest impediment to achieve this target. At a Fund-Bank meeting in Washington a few years ago, Mr Chidambaram, then finance minister, had remarked: “Infrastructure logjams are likely to impact loss of GDP to the extent of 2 per cent.” While economic units cope with energy shortages with individual remedies (high cost and inefficient as they may be), in the area of transportation there is very little play for “private solutions”. Thus, much of what Dr Mohan’s Committee postulates will play a crucial role in the nation’s economic destiny from now till 2050.

In the 11th Plan, the share of transportation (roads, railways, ports and airports) is Rs 6,95,000 crore, which is 33 per cent of total infrastructure spend projected. The 12th Plan infrastructure spend, the prime minister has said, is expected to be double that of the 11th Plan, i.e. $1,000 billion, against $500 billion. Assuming the 33 per cent share of transportation remains broadly the same, Dr Mohan’s recommendations are certain to impact the nature and direction of $330 billion, or roughly Rs 14,00,000 crore in the immediate, and much more over the next few decades. It is indeed an onerous responsibility.

While there is a maze of issues that the Committee will have to navigate through, here is a suggested list of ten priority areas:

Road-Rail mix: Compared to other sub-continental nations, India’s road-rail mix is getting far too skewed towards road with all the consequential downsides. The surgeon’s knife will have to cut deep into existing turf, structures and practices to shift the balance back to rail movement on trunk routes. Dr Mohan became hugely unpopular with the Railways establishment when he announced radical reform measures for railways in his 2002 report.

Energy sustainability: The link between transport and energy is crucial in the 21st century. The sustainability of current patterns, use of technologies and resultant carbon footprints require refashioning. Specifically, minimisation of dependence on petroleum fuels and maximisation of environmental soundness are the key desirables.

Coastal shipping: This has to be quickly encouraged and facilitated. Concrete steps are awaited.

Regulatory environment: The Planning Commission, in its draft legislation for a new architecture for independent regulators in infrastructure, has suggested setting up of a Transport Regulatory Authority. The Committee has to take a view on this matter.

Urban transportation: This has, historically, been caught in the cross hair of the urban ministry, railways and urban local bodies. A hierarchy of urban transport choices and institutions needs to be formulated and adopted to drive far higher levels of public transportation as compared to the situation today.

Methods of financing: Figuring out a financing plan for the Rs 14,00,000-crore requirement for transportation in the 12th Plan is not an easy task. Crucial to the solution is the extent of usage of PPP (public private partnership) interventions to leverage public expenditure, while continuing to provide “access with affordability” to the “aam aadmi”.

Integration and multi-modalism: The favourite topic at all transport seminars, the seamless integration of transport modes, has eluded India. A “logistics-cum-network” view of transport and related institutional solutions to achieve this will be eagerly awaited as an output of the Committee.

Global and regional hubbing: India has clear ambitions to emerge as one of the major hubs for Asia. Like a seat on the Security Council, absence of this status is a source of discomfort and resentment. Today, maritime cargo gets trans-shipped at Colombo or Dubai or Singapore. Even the grand opening of the T3 terminal at Delhi airport begs the question whether major airlines will be sufficiently motivated to adopt it for hub operations in and out of Asia.

Safety and quality of service: India has the dubious distinction of having the worst safety record on its roads. Indian Railways’ quality of service to its many million passengers is also well-known. So is the story of roadways corporations. Can the nation expect some clear “service-delivery standards”, or “service-level-agreements” that the transporters provide, and be held accountable for?

The developmental agenda: From rural connectivity to North-East and hill-area linkages, to poorly developed “Naxal” tracts, can transportation herald a new India? What is going to be the balance between outlays for existing as well as remunerative economic corridors versus long-term development of neglected areas? This will be one of the hardest nuts to crack for Dr Mohan and his Committee.

Transport us, Dr Mohan!

The author is the chairman of Feedback Ventures. Views expressed are personal  

First Published: Mon, August 16 2010. 00:34 IST