Sucheta Dalal :The Trouble With India
Sucheta Dalal

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The Trouble With India  

March 30, 2007

Crumbling roads, jammed airports, and power blackouts could hobble growth

When foreigners say Bangalore is India's version of Silicon Valley, the high-tech office park called Electronics City is what they're often thinking of. But however much Californians might hate traffic-clogged Route 101, the main drag though the Valley, it has nothing on Hosur Road. This potholed, four-lane stretch of gritty pavement—the primary access to Electronics City—is pure chaos. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, cows, donkeys, and dogs jostle for every inch of the roadway as horns blare and brakes squeal. Drivers run red lights and jam their vehicles into any available space, paying no mind to pedestrians clustered desperately on median strips like shipwrecked sailors.  

Getty Images/ 2006 AFP

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Pass through the six-foot-high concrete walls into Electronics City, though, and the loudest sounds you hear are the chirping of birds and the whirr of electric carts that whisk visitors from one steel-and-glass building to the next. Young men and women stroll the manicured pathways that wend their way through the leafy 80-acre spread or coast quietly on bicycles along the smooth asphalt roads. 
With virtually no mass transit in Bangalore, Indian technology firm Infosys Technologies Ltd. spends $5 million a year on buses, minivans, and taxis to transport its 18,000 employees to and from Electronics City. And traffic jams mean workers can spend upwards of four hours commuting each day. "India has underinvested in infrastructure for 60 years, and we're behind what we need by 10 to 12 years," says T.V. Mohandas Pai, director of human resources for Infosys. 
India's high-tech services industry has set the country's economic flywheel spinning. Growth is running at 9%-plus this year. The likes of Wal-Mart (
WMT ), Vodafone (VOD ), and Citigroup (C ) are placing multibillion-dollar bets on the country, lured by its 300 million-strong middle class. In spite of a recent drop, the Bombay stock exchange's benchmark Sensex index is still up more than 40% since June. Real estate has shot through the roof, with some prices doubling in the past year. 
But this economic boom is being built on the shakiest of foundations. Highways, modern bridges, world-class airports, reliable power, and clean water are in desperately short supply. And what's already there is literally crumbling under the weight of progress. In December, a bridge in eastern India collapsed, killing 34 passengers in a train rumbling underneath. Economic losses from congestion and poor roads alone are as high as $6 billion a year, says Gajendra Haldea, an adviser to the federal Planning Commission. 
For all its importance, the tech services sector employs just 1.6 million people, and it doesn't rely on good roads and bridges to get its work done. India needs manufacturing to boom if it is to boost exports and create jobs for the 10 million young people who enter the workforce each year. Suddenly, good infrastructure matters a lot more. Yet industry is hobbled by overcrowded highways where speeds average just 20 miles per hour. Some ports rely on armies of laborers to unload cargo from trucks and lug it onto ships. Across the state of Maharashtra, major cities lose power one day a week to relieve pressure on the grid. In Pune, a city of 4.5 million, it's lights out every Thursday—forcing factories to maintain expensive backup generators. Government officials were shocked last year when Intel Corp. (
INTC ) chose Vietnam over India as the site for a new chip assembly plant. Although Intel declined to comment, industry insiders say the reason was largely the lack of reliable power and water in India. 
Add up this litany of woes and you understand why India's exports total less than 1% of global trade, compared with 7% for China. Says Infosys Chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy: "If our infrastructure gets delayed, our economic development, job creation, and foreign investment get delayed. Our economic agenda gets delayed—if not derailed." 
The infrastructure deficit is so critical that it could prevent India from achieving the prosperity that finally seems to be within its grasp. Without reliable power and water and a modern transportation network, the chasm between India's moneyed elite and its 800 million poor will continue to widen, potentially destabilizing the country. Jagdish N. Bhagwati, a professor at Columbia University, figures gross domestic product growth would run two percentage points higher if the country had decent roads, railways, and power. "We're bursting at the seams," says Kamal Nath, India's Commerce & Industry Minister. Without better infrastructure, "we can't continue with the growth rates we have had." 
The problems are even contributing to overheating in the economy. Inflation spiked in the first week of February to a two-year high of 6.7%, due in part to bottlenecks caused by the country's lousy transport network. Up to 40% of farm produce is lost because it rots in the fields or spoils en route to consumers, which contributes to rising prices for staples such as lentils and onions. 
India today is about where China was a decade ago. Back then, China's economy was shifting into overdrive, but its roads and power grid weren't up to the task. So Beijing launched a massive upgrade initiative, building more than 25,000 miles of expressways that now crisscross the country and are as good as the best roads in the U.S. or Europe. India, by contrast, has just 3,700 miles of such highways. It's no wonder that when foreign companies weigh putting new plants in China vs. India to produce global exports, China more often wins out. 
China's lead in infrastructure is likely to grow, too. Beijing plows about 9% of its GDP into public works, compared with New Delhi's 4%. And because of its authoritarian government, China gets faster results. "If you have to build a road in China, just a handful of people need to make a decision," says Daniel Vasella, chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Novartis (
NVS ). "If you want to build a road in India, it'll take 10 years of discussion before you get a decision." 
Blame it partly on India's revolving-door democracy. Political parties typically hold power for just one five-year term before disgruntled voters, swayed by populist promises from the opposition, kick them out of office. In elections last year in the state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, a new government was voted in after it pledged to give free color TVs to poor families. "In a sanely organized society you can get a lot done. Not here," says Jayaprakash Narayan, head of Lok Satta, or People Power, a national reform party. 
Then there's "leakage"—India's euphemism for rampant corruption. Nearly all sectors of officialdom are riddled with graft, from neighborhood cops to district bureaucrats to state ministers. Indian truckers pay about $5 billion a year in bribes, according to the watchdog group Transparency International. Corruption delays infrastructure projects and raises costs for those that move ahead. 
Fortunately, after decades of underinvestment and political inertia, India's political leadership has awakened to the magnitude of the infrastructure crisis. A handful of major projects have been completed; others are moving forward. Work on the Golden Quadrilateral—a $12 billion initiative spanning more than 3,000 miles of four- and six-lane expressways connecting Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai—is due to be completed this year. The first phase of a new subway in New Delhi finished in late 2005 on budget and ahead of schedule. And new airports are under construction in Bangalore and Hyderabad, with more planned elsewhere. "We have to improve the quality of our infrastructure," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a gathering of tech industry leaders in Mumbai on Feb. 9. "It's a priority of our government." 
Singh, in fact, is promising a Marshall Plan-scale effort. The government estimates public and private organizations will chip in $330 billion to $500 billion over the next five years for highways, power generation, ports, and airports. In addition, leading conglomerates have pledged to overhaul the retailing sector. That will require infrastructure upgrades along the entire food distribution chain, from farm fields to store shelves. 
Envisioning a brand-new India is the easy part; paying for it is another matter. By necessity, since the country's public debt stands at 82% of GDP, the 11th-worst ranking in the world, much of the money for these new projects will have to come from private sources. Yet India captured only $8 billion in foreign direct investment last year, compared with China's $63 billion. "Having grandiose plans isn't enough," says Yale University economics professor T.N. Srinivasan. 
Just about every foreign company operating in India has a horror story of the hardships of doing business there. Nokia Corp. (
NOK ) saw thousands of its cellular phones ruined last October when a shipment from its factory in Chennai was soaked by rain because there was no room to warehouse the crates of handsets at the local airport. Japan's Maruti Suzuki says trucking its cars 900 miles from its factory in Gurgaon to the port in Mumbai can take up to 10 days. That's partly due to delays at the three state borders along the way, where drivers are stalled as officials check their papers. But it's also because big rigs are barred from India's congested cities during the day, when they might bring dense traffic to a standstill. Once at the port, the Japanese company's autos can wait weeks for the next outbound ship because there's not enough dock space for cargo carriers to load and unload. 
India's summer monsoons wreak havoc, too. Even relatively light rains can choke sewers, flood streets, and paralyze a city, while downpours are devastating. Two years ago, Florida-based contract manufacturer Jabil Circuit Inc. saw shipments of computers and networking gear from its plant near Mumbai delayed for five days after an epic storm. "In our business, five days is a really long time," says William D. Muir Jr., who oversees Jabil's Asian operations. 
Companies often have no choice but to make the best of a bad situation. Cisco Systems Inc. (
CSCO ), the American networking equipment giant, has had a research and development office in India since 1999 and already has 2,000 engineers in the country. To supply the country's fast-growing telecommunications industry, Cisco decided last year to try its hand at making some parts locally. In December it contracted with another company to build Internet phones in the southeastern city of Chennai. Although Cisco says the quality of the workmanship is up to snuff, it has to fly parts in because the ports are so slow—and getting them to the factory right when they're needed is proving nettlesome. "We believe in manufacturing in India, but we don't believe in logistics in India—yet," says Wim Elfrink, Cisco's chief globalization officer. Elfrink adds that unless the Chennai operation demonstrates it can run as efficiently as Cisco setups elsewhere, it won't go into full production as planned this summer. 
Even the world's largest maker of infrastructure equipment is constrained by India's feeble underpinnings. General Electric Co. (
GE ) last year sold $1.2 billion worth of gear such as power generators and locomotives in India, more than double what it billed in 2005. To meet that surging demand, it is scrambling to find a location where it can manufacture locomotives in partnership with India Railways. But when GE dispatched three employees to survey a potential site the railway favored in the northern state of Bihar, the trio returned discouraged. It took five hours to drive the 50 miles from the airport to the site, and when they got there they found...nothing. "No roads, no power, no schools, no water, no hospitals, no housing," says Pratyush Kumar, president of GE Infrastructure in India. "We'd have to create everything from scratch," including many miles of railroad tracks to get the locomotives out to the main lines. 
But there is a silver lining for GE and other international giants: India's infrastructure deficit could yield huge opportunities. American executives who traveled to India last November on the largest U.S. trade mission ever were tantalized by the possibilities. Jennifer Thompson, director of international planning at Oshkosh Truck Corp. (
OSK ), viewed construction projects where swarms of workers carried wet concrete in buckets to be poured. That told her there's great potential in India for selling Oshkosh's mixer trucks. "There are infrastructure challenges, but we see a lot of opportunities to help them meet those challenges," she says. 
That explains why so many multinationals are flocking to India. Take hotel construction: In a country with only 25,000 tourist-class hotel rooms (compared with more than 140,000 in Las Vegas alone), companies including Hilton (
HLT ), Wyndham (WYN ), and Ramada have plans for 75,000 rooms on their drawing boards. Or consider telecom. Because of deregulation and ferocious demand, India boasts the fastest growth in cell-phone service anywhere, with companies adding some 6 million new customers a month. No wonder Britain's Vodafone Group PLC (VOD ) just ponied up $11 billion for a controlling interest in Hutchison Essar, India's No. 4 mobile carrier. U.S. private equity outfits also want in on the action. On Feb. 15, Blackstone Group and Citigroup announced they are teaming up with the Indian government and the Infrastructure Development Finance Corp. to set up a $5 billion fund for infrastructure investments in India. 
But while the laws of supply and demand would argue that India's infrastructure gap can be filled, that logic ignores the corrosive effect of the country's politics. To gain the favor of voters, Indian politicians have long subsidized electricity and water for farmers, a policy that has discouraged private investment in those areas. That's what wrecked the now-infamous Dabhol Power plant. In the late 1990s, Enron, GE, and Bechtel spent a total of $2.8 billion building a huge complex near Mumbai capable of producing more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity. But a government power authority set prices so low that it was uneconomical for Dabhol to operate, and the whole deal fell apart. (The plant, taken over by an Indian organization, now runs only fitfully.) A 2001 law was supposed to create a framework to support private investment in power generation. But according to American construction company executives, it's not working well. "Everybody knows what needs to be done, but they have great difficulty doing it," says one of the Americans. "If the party in opposition offers subsidized power, the party in power has to give subsidized power to get reelected." 
Politicians who refuse to play the game pay a steep price. N. Chandrababu Naidu, the former chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, transformed the state capital of Hyderabad from a backwater into a high-tech destination by building new roads, widening others, and aggressively carving out land for factories and office parks. Google (
GOOG ), IBM (IBM ), Microsoft (MSFT ), and Motorola (MOT ) have all built R&D facilities there. 
His reward? Voters tossed him out of office two years ago. During his decade in power, Naidu didn't do enough for rural areas, and his challenger promised to channel state funds into irrigation projects and electricity subsidies. "Naidu thought economics were more important than politics. He was wrong," says V.S. Rao, director of the Birla Institute of Technology & Science in Hyderabad. Naidu, 56, is plotting a comeback in elections two years hence. This time, he's preaching a new gospel. "You can't just target growth," says a chastened Naidu. "You have to create policies that make the wealth trickle down to the common man." 
But even when politicians say they're beefing up infrastructure, it rarely helps the poorest Indians. Agriculture is stagnant in part because of a lack of the most rudimentary of roads to get to and from fields. N. Tarupthurai, for instance, scratches out a living from a five-acre plot in Jinnuru, a village in northeastern Andhra Pradesh. But his fields are more than a mile from the nearest paved road, so each day the 40-year-old Tarupthurai must carry his tools, seeds, fertilizer, and crops down a dirt path on his back or on his bicycle. "I have asked for a road, and the government says it's under consideration," says the mustachioed, curly-haired farmer. Then he shrugs. 
One reason little practical help makes it from the seats of power to India's impoverished villages is that so much money gets siphoned off along the way. With corrupt officials skimming at every step, many public works projects either go over budget or are never completed. "You figure that 25% of the cost goes to corruption," says Verghese Jacob, head of the Byrraju Foundation, which promotes rural development. "And then they do such a bad job that the road falls apart in one year and has to be patched over again," Jacob says as he jostles along in a car on a potholed byway outside Hyderabad. 
None of the solutions to India's infrastructure challenges are simple, but business leaders, some enlightened government officials, and even ordinary citizens are chipping in to make things better. The most potent weapon India's reformers have against corruption is transparency. Last October a new right-to-information law went into effect requiring both central and state governments to divulge information about contracts, hiring, and expenditures to any citizen who requests it. The country is also putting to work its vaunted technology prowess to police the government. Officials in 200 districts are using software from Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. to help monitor a government program that offers every rural household a guarantee of 100 days of work per year. Most of this labor goes into public works. To minimize "leakage," the TCS software tracks every expenditure—and makes all of the information available real-time on a Web site accessible to anyone. 
Sometimes frustrated Indians take matters into their own hands. Tired of spending four-plus hours a day in traffic, Aruna Newton last fall helped organize something of a women's crusade to speed up infrastructure improvements. Nearly 15,000 volunteers now monitor key road projects and meet with state officials to press for action. They even enlisted the state chief minister's mother, who helped get his attention. "It's about the collective power of the people," says Newton, a 40-year-old vice-president for Infosys. "I just wish building a road was as easy as writing a software program." 
Increasingly, companies trying to expand in India have the government as a willing partner rather than a roadblock. The state of Andhra Pradesh rolled out the red carpet last year for MAS Holdings Ltd. of Sri Lanka, South Asia's largest garment manufacturer. It promised subsidized electricity, new access roads, and even a deepwater port if the company would place a huge industrial park on the southern coast. Now MAS Holdings plans to build a cluster of factories that will eventually employ 30,000 production workers. And it chose India over China. "The government support was absolutely vital," says John Chiramel, India director for MAS Holdings. "If we can work together, there's no stopping growth in this country." 
A key to getting massive projects off the drawing boards is forming public-private partnerships where the government and companies share costs, risks, and rewards. In 2005, India passed a groundbreaking law permitting officials to tap such partnerships for infrastructure initiatives. Developers ante up most of the money, collect tolls or other usage fees, and eventually hand the facilities back to the government. 
The first project to take advantage of the new law is the $430 million international airport scheduled to open next year in Bangalore. The facility is designed to handle 11.5 million passengers per year—nearly double the capacity of the overburdened existing airport. It will be owned by a private company, which will turn it over to the Karnataka state government after 60 years. Global engineering and equipment giant Siemens (
SI ) is helping to build the facility, and Switzerland's Unique Ltd. will manage it. These companies are also equity investors. The state had to contribute just 18% of the cost. Without such an arrangement, Karnataka wouldn't be getting a new airport. 
A lot of India's hopes rest on the airport deal's success. If it proves the viability of public-private partnerships, more such ventures could come pouring in. A visit to the site instills confidence. Project manager Sivaramakrishnan S. Iyer is a crusty veteran of mammoth infrastructure ventures throughout South Asia and the Mideast. Wearing a scuffed hardhat, with a two-day growth of white stubble on his face, he surveys the site from a 2.5-mile-long bed of crushed granite that will be the runway. Work goes on seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Iyer is intent on wrapping up on schedule in April, 2008. "We have the will to do it, and it will be done," he says. 
Will the airport open on time? That's not within Iyer's control. Two government authorities are responsible for building the road that leads to the airport, and they're locked in a dispute over how to do it. Work hasn't started. 
And so it goes in India. Unless the nation shakes off its legacy of bureaucracy, politics, and corruption, its ability to build adequate infrastructure will remain in doubt. So will its economic destiny.

Business Week, March 19, 2007, pp.48 – 58.

By Steve Hamm

-- Sucheta Dalal