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Little Things Make it Big: By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0126/2016

Courtesy: DNA India 

Infrastructure is a long, boring word. Yet life could be impossible without infrastructure. The everyday essentials — water, food, shelter, electricity, petrol, roads, bridges, schools, colleges, hospitals, trains, buses, planes, phones, telecom, internet and so much else — add up to infrastructure.

Perhaps, it is not a coincidence that, through artefacts, when civilisations are re-imagined and re-constructed, they are marvelled at for the ‘infrastructure’ they had in their time. Only in its absence does one realise how essential and invaluable it is for living. Infrastructure is at the core of development, for without it, development is not attainable.

Doubtless, “development” means different things to different people. In spite of its loaded, conflicting meanings, “development” has acquired a clarity of meaning across the world, among the poor as well as the prosperous, the deprived and the “developed”. The word has acquired universal acceptance across countries, cultures, religions, ideologies and political systems.

In The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith, Gilbert Rist defines development as: “A set of practices, sometimes appearing to conflict with one another, which require — for the reproduction of society — the general transformation and destruction of national environment and of social relations. Its aim is to increase the production of commodities (goods and services) geared, by way of exchange, to effective demand.”

During my early travels to the West, I perceived “development” as the difference between the “developed” and “developing” countries. As much as the skyline and city lights of London, Paris, Berlin and New York, what struck me was the uninterrupted supply of electricity and water, various modes of rapid public transport, efficient telecommunication, excellent healthcare and the many structures of convenience that made for a better quality of life and standard of living. These, in turn, made for better health, higher efficiency, more productive work and improved economical functioning.

The exposure imprinted in my mind that development is just another word for infrastructure, which could translate as “structures of convenience for living”. Equally etched in my mind was the idea of infrastructure as something for “Them” in the advanced industrialised countries and not for “Us” in the developing southern nations.

That was until I visited China.

Travelling to Beijing, first with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008 for his economic summit with Premier Wen Jiabao and, thereafter, for long and short spells, was an eye-opener to how much of the “developed” is achievable as development in a “developing” country.

After visits and short stays in Europe, I felt that these small countries, with populations so much smaller than India and China, could afford the infrastructure and the development flowing from it. Europe could afford a better life based on appropriation of the wealth, resources and products of the colonies over a long period. After World War II, there was the Marshall Plan, under which the US pumped in huge resources. The Cold War may have been a bad time, but it was also a good time for Europe with its West and East being developed and bankrolled by their respective superpower-patrons. NATO gave West Europe an advantage over East Europe, although the East lagged behind and remained, relatively, backward. With so many governments and so much government for a population of about 600 million in 50 states (excluding Russia), great infrastructure, high employment, good quality of life and a higher standard of living was no big deal.

In contrast, for the nearly three billion people of India and China, there are only two national governments. Both have been victims of colonialism and imperialism, and were blocked for long from access to technology and the goodies of the industrialised West that could have hastened development. Given this history, the political stability along with economic, social and human development achieved by India and China, since 1947 and 1949 respectively, is indeed impressive.

China’s achievements are more impressive despite its different political system. What struck me during my first visit in January 2008 was China’s stupendous infrastructure, and the breakneck speed at which it was being developed in the run up to the Olympic Games scheduled for later that year in Beijing. In the years since then, during visits to the provinces and Beijing, I noticed that the development of infrastructure — housing, business districts, commercial buildings, malls, markets, metro lines, ring roads, bridges, flyovers, power stations, schools, universities, hospitals and new hubs of technology, transport, telecom, energy, transshipment, railways — continues unabated. The momentum of development remains much as it was during the countdown to the Olympics.

Seeing this in China convinced me that infrastructure development is achievable even for countries with a large population; and, that scale and size need not be a deterrent. On the contrary, in a larger country, the cost and benefits can be spread over a larger area and population. Thus, the high level of development once seen only in Europe and the US (besides parts of Asia like Japan, Singapore and Malaysia) need no longer be a distant dream for India and other developing countries.

China’s transformation is awesome. More than 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last three decades. Thirty years of turbo-charged economic growth has changed for all time the semi-feudal, semi-colonial condition of a people who were dirt poor. Once irrelevant, isolated and backward, today China has emerged as a power that is courted and feared. Its rise as the world’s second largest economy, stable and prosperous enough to feed 1.3 billion people and hold its own against any and all is unprecedented in history.

Not once during my long stints in China did I face water shortage or power outage. I never experienced a minute’s cut in electricity or water supply. In China, everything — power and water supplies, infrastructure, systems and services — works and, where required, round the clock for 365 days in a year. Therefore, it is not surprising that, like the US, “the business of China is business”.

In many spheres, India’s achievements surpass or compare favourably with that of the West. Yet India’s potential remains unrealised. It is weighed down by poverty, unemployment and poor infrastructure which, in turn, retard development and growth with equity and justice.

Regardless of the many social, political and cultural differences between the Asian giants, China’s experience, poverty alleviation measures and development trajectory are relevant to India. China can play an important role in India’s development agenda. The ‘Make in India’ programme is a leaf taken out of China’s experience in development of the manufacturing industry as a prerequisite for the millions of jobs that have to be created. Manufacturing and infrastructure development go together; and, it is together that infrastructure and manufacturing can create jobs, boost productivity and drive growth for the developmental leap out of poverty and inequality.

India has the advantage of being able to choose what is appropriate from the Chinese experience. China has much to profit from partnering India. It would be serving its own interest by exporting infrastructure projects, setting up manufacturing units and finding a new market of over a billion for its companies, projects, products and services. The outcome, to use a phrase the Chinese love, would be “win-win” for both.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator)

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