(This is part of a series of articles called #ManifestoMusings, my thoughts and views based on the manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress for the Indian General Elections 2019)

The Indian General Election season is here!

Will it be ‘Abki baar (phir) Modi sarkaar’ (‘this time (again) it is time for a Modi government’) or ‘Jaat par na pat par, mohar lagega haath par’ (‘neither based on caste nor on creed, my vote will be on the hand’; the hand is the symbol of the Indian National Congress)? Will India finally vote for a regime mainly on development issues or are we still some way off from such a scenario? How important will caste dynamics be? Will communal and sectarian politics play a role?

These are all questions that shall matter immensely as the country gears up for the General Elections 2019, beginning from 11 April 2019.

The manifestos for Indian General Elections 2019 of the major Indian national parties: Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress, have now been released. Both parties have looked into various aspects of life and society in their respective manifestos, right from the economy and jobs to foreign affairs and defense.  While one focuses on its leader (the BJP’s with the focus being on Narendra Modi), the other seems to focus on people, in general. One talks of resolutions (‘Sankalp‘) while the other talks of its ability to deliver (the Indian National Congress).

As the country gears up to vote, I would like to look at the key points that are covered (or not covered) in the manifestos, in a series of articles called #ManifestoMusings. This first article is looking at infrastructure building plans and projects suggested by the two parties. The importance of infrastructure building cannot be highlighted enough. Be it power, roadways, buildings, lines of communication, rail-lines or waterways, infrastructure is crucial for the smooth functioning of the nation. India’s road to growth that is sustainable and comes with a manufacturing sector that is competitive has to be with reliable and robust infrastructure across the country. India currently invests capital worth about 35% of its GDP in infrastructure. However, as per government estimates, India still needs more than ₹1 crore crores in infrastructure investments over the next ten years to bridge the infrastructure deficit! On top of this, one needs more capital for future growth with a tried-and-tested ‘multiplier effect’ of infrastructure investments on economic growth (and GDP) across the various sectors.

As both parties pitch their manifestos for claiming power in 2019, let us see what the two parties have to say on this.

The Congress Going Back to the Basics?

The Indian National Congress begins its infra-pitch (understandably) by highlighting that `flawed design, inefficient execution, insufficient capacity and poor maintenance of infrastructure have dragged India’s growth rate down‘. Not wanting to sound unfairly harsh but most of the years since India’s independence in 1947 has seen a Congress government in the center, and so I wonder if that statement, in itself, is not a self-indictment. To counter this problem,

Congress promises to address these deficiencies with a combination of planning, technology, quality and accountability.

The Congress has travelled a long way since the inception of the Republic, often at the helm of matters. British economist Barbara Ward once wrote that ‘the Indian record in both infrastructure and industry is one of substantial advance on a broad front, (…) like the big push needed to achieve sustained growth.’ Even though the GDP of India did not grow immensely (also because there had been near zero-percent growth in the first half of the twentieth century) but the basics of economics and infrastructure investment done right gave the country a near 4% economic growth until around the Indo-China war in 1962.

As much as the Congress worked on this front last time they were in power, there remains a lot more left to be done. And the INC gets down to it, by going back to the basics. It begins with the arteries of the country, when it comes to trade and movement of individuals, in a manner of speaking: the roadways and railways. It looks at not only maintaining the existing infrastructure relating to these two areas but also building infrastructure wherever lacking or required. It promises to increase the total length of national highways, with a focus on quality, accountability, maintenance and design. The Congress also talks of massively modernising `all outdated railway infrastructure’. Both road and railways construction is open to private capital and capacity being involved, along with an emphasis on the Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model.

It is interesting that in the very next section in its infra-pitch, the Congress arguably tries to correct the one thing that cost the INC the elections last time: natural resources and spectrum allocation. A number of scams and scandals rocked the Congress’ boat to the extent of nearly sinking it in 2014. In 2019, the INC says that

Congress promises to review, re-formulate and implement the policy on spectrum and on exploration and extraction of natural resources. The policy will address issues of allocation, capital investment, enhanced production, transparency, efficiency, risk-reward concerns, environmental sustainability, inter-generational equity, accountability, competition and appropriate sectoral regulation.

There still is a lot to be done on this front that the Congress does not talk about. Water is a major natural resource that needs efficient usage. City water distribution systems need to be improved (possibly with latest technology like digital technology with flowmeters), which can also give some additional water revenues. Interception and treatment of sewerage water for re-use before it enter water bodies is also an area that needs work. When it comes to coal, pre-processing, combustion as well as modernization of coal plants are important areas where infrastructure needs to improved, and where digital technology deployment could improve results. The same goes for oil and gas industries in the country. The Congress does seek to look into clean energy and promises to encourage the increased use of green energy over fossil fuels, but does not quite lay out the details on how it seeks to do so. The party also has a dedicated promise to substituting LPG in homes by electricity and solar energy, in the long term. Big promises that can help immensely but only time will tell if these have substance in them.

Power is an area that is of utmost importance in India, in industry, civilian habitation and elsewhere. The BJP has been trying to project its electrification drive as a major poll pitch. The INC tries to dent this one area that the BJP has made a key issue: electrification of houses, particularly in rural India, by saying that the Congress promises `to enhance availability of, and access to, electricity in rural areas by encouraging investment in off-grid renewable power generation with ownership and revenues vesting in local bodies‘. The Congress talks of electrifying every village and every home `in the true sense’, whatever that means. As per government sources, 5,61,613 villages were electrified till 31 October 2013, which was a little more than 90% of the villages! Given that many of the villages that the BJP government claims to have electrified have less than the minimum 10% electricity required to call it truly ‘electrified’, the Congress can use this pitch effectively if it can present the arguments and a case for the same. The other big elephant in the room is quality assurance. Under the rural electrification scheme, the cost for providing free electricity connection to a household that is Below-the-Poverty-Line (BPL) is ₹ 3,000, though it has been noted that this cost is seen to be inadequate and lower than required for good quality and proper implementation of the scheme. This is where the Congress can step in and possibly even rope in its much-quoted PPP model.

Installation of deep-borewells with electric pumps in Kodiyalathur panchayat in Nagapattinam district and Puliyoor village in Tiruvarur district, Tamil Nadu, June 2017 (Courtesy: Ramakrishna Math at https://bit.ly/2IbsyFq)

When it comes to infrastructure related to rural development, the Congress looks into other areas as well, saying that `in order to fill the gaps in sector-specific schemes as well correct any unintended bias’, they would like to empower Panchayats and Municipalities to themselves design and implement their own infrastructure projects, along with promising to create a `non-lapsable Rural Infrastructure Fund’ to provide grants and loans to such projects. The reason I find this a bit ludicrous is because there already exists a Rural Infrastructure Development Fund that was created by the Government of India within the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in 1995-96, with a cumulative allocation of Rs.3,20,500 crore, including Rs. 18,500 crore under Bharat Nirman. Unless the Congress has short-term memory loss regarding this fund created by their own government (though their historical disregard for non-Gandhi PMs from their party like P.V. Narasimha Rao is well known), the party needs to stop building castles in the air where ramparts have long been standing.

Not to forget, how can one talk of rural development in a Congress manifesto and not talk of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)? The Congress talks of launch MGNREGA 3.0 in 2019 to `address issues of water security, soil quality and similar issues that aggravate farmers’ distress’. They propose to increased the guaranteed days of employment to 150 days in blocks and districts where 100 days employment guarantee has been achieved. This is a bit too ambitious since government data shows that less than 15% of eligible families have got 100 days of work in a year since 2006! While the INC also talks of using MGNREGA labour in new areas such as the Waterbodies Restoration Mission and the Wasteland Regeneration Mission, what I find strange and a tad bit disturbing is that they talk of using the MGNREGA funds to also build public assets such as classrooms and health centres. I do not see what is new or different in this since public assets development is already given a high priority. The Congress goes on to assure that its will connect all habitation with a population of 250 with a road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, besides working on broadband connectivity and the National Drinking Water Mission. What I find commendable is the commitment to passing the Right to Homestead Act that has been languishing in the government corridors since 2013. The NDA government agreed to discuss people’s right to homestead land in June 2018 last I read about it and there has not been much thereafter. The Act will provide a homestead for every household that doesn’t own land or a home.

The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, visiting National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) site during his visit to Ram Sher, Barmer, Rajasthan on August 29, 2009.
The Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Shri Ashok Gehlot is also seen in the picture (Courtesy: Public.Resource.org at https://bit.ly/2UOxZ2R)

When it comes to urban development and urban policy, the Congress promises to formulate a comprehensive plan for urbanisation after consulting with various stakeholders. The consultation will be on topics such as governance (including mayors directly elected by the people, which I personally do not feel is a great idea for being imposed across the country, as also put forth by Mathew Idiculla in this article, and multi-disciplinary teams to do urban planning and implement municipal works), housing, climate change and pollution, transportation systems and disaster management. Much like the BJP’s smart city plan, the INC seeks to build new towns and cities as well as satellite towns across the country. Moreover the plan to devolve power and functions to the local bodies is good thought financial devolution may need stringent checks and balances in place for it to not become a model for the corruption seen in places like the Bombay Municipal Corporation. The Congress also talks of promising the Right to Housing for the urban poor and building night shelters for the homeless. They also talk of ensuring basic amenities to slum dwellers. I ask them: what is so different in this, either in design or implementation, from the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM)?

The BJP Bandwagon: Bharatmala, Jal Jivan Mission and More

The best way to describe what the BJP has broadly done is to hear from their own introductory blurb in their infra-pitch, where it highlight its strong performance on the infrastructure building front and the problems created by the Congress rule before 2014,

In the 10 years of UPA rule, policy paralysis and corruption had derailed infrastructural development. The last five years, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, infrastructural roll out has been put back on track. For the first time, India has started marching and is being seen on the path of global standards in infrastructure and civic amenities. The speed of constructing rural roads has doubled and 90% of rural road connectivity has been achieved. Furthermore, India has become a net exporter of electricity and has achieved maximum production of coal and maximum distribution of LED bulbs. There has been an unprecedented rise in the port capacity and the speed of setting up new rail lines, gauge conversion, and electrification of railway tracks has doubled. We have invested at an unprecedented level in building infrastructure in the last five years. This includes massive budgetary allocation for railways, highways, village roads and other health as well as educational infrastructure. We have also started and matured into a new technology driven platform called PRAGATI (Pro-active Governance and Timely Implementation). Through this, mechanism, we are de-bottlenecking major projects on a regular basis through video conference with offcials across the country.

Not only does the BJP speak of cutting edge technology and infrastructure building such as seeking to connect every Gram Panchayat with high speed optical fibre network by 2022 in its manifesto, but much like the INC, the BJP also has a dedicated section on basic infrastructure, particularly roadways and railways. For roadways, the BJP puts forth the specific target of constructing 60,000 km of National Highways in the next five years, in continuation of `constructing roads at an unprecedented pace’. The BJP seeks to double the length of National Highways by 2022 and complete the first phase of the Bharatmala project, besides seeking to launch Bharatmala 2.0, to `support the states to develop state road networks connecting the interior regions to the main roads and to effectively leverage the economic potential and market opportunities of the concerned regions’. The referenced Bharatmala project is a centrally-sponsored and funded roadways project for building roads for more than 83,500 km by the Indian government at a staggering investment of ₹5.35 lakh crore, making it the single largest outlay for a government road construction scheme. The project will build highways Gujarat and Rajasthan, moving north to Haryana and Punjab, then covering the states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir and some portions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, before finally moving to West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur. Bharatmala is slated to connect 550 district headquarters to minimum 4-lane highway by raising the number of corridors to 50 and moving 80% freight traffic to national highways. On roadways, the BJP goes on to say that it would like to bring in new technology and ways of road construction, maintenance and operation. To make matters even more cutting-edge, the BJP promises to work on trying to make India a world leader in e-mobility. As per the party, ₹10,000 crores have already been allocated for launching a programme to promote vehicles operated on clean energy and batteries. They promise to keep up this work to ensure `expansion of this new mobility experience’.

The Karnataka express chugging along. In the railways sector of their Sankalp Patra 2019, BJP said it will ensure the conversion of all viable rail tracks to broad gauge by 2022 (Courtesy: Belur Ashoka at https://bit.ly/2G71XWo)

When it comes to railways, the BJP says it shall continue to work on making the experience of travelling on railways safe, satisfying and clean, with development of infrastructure for the same. This includes their poll promise of electrification of all railway tracks, equipping all main railways stations with WiFi and ensuring the conversion of all viable rail tracks to broad gauge by 2022.  Recently, RailTel (a Mini-Ratna PSU of the Indian Railways) provided high-speed WiFi at 985 stations with their own funds and at 415 other stations by associating with Google as the technology partner for Radio Access. In the last five years, all unmanned level crossing (UMLCs) on broad gauge lines were eliminated, CCTV coverage at stations as well as trains have been improved, a new ticketing website with better features has been released, handheld POS machines have been introduced for ticketing and food billing to ensure transparency and over 1.8 lakh bio-toilets have been installed in trains. All these achievements make one positive of the promises the BJP makes. The BJP also speaks of expanding the connectivity of, and experience in, high speed, new trains such as Vande Bharat Express across the country in the next five years, along with completing the dedicated freight corridor project by 2022.

Not to be left behind, air travel and coastal development are also poll issues for the BJP. The BJP also promises to double the number of airports from 101 as it stands, in the next five years. Another area it looks at is coastal development, on which it says that it will double the country’s port capacity in the next five years. Looking at the comprehensive development of the coastal areas, it talks of development of cities, transportation and industrialization in the coastal areas. It talks of upgrading the infrastructure for connecting the coastal areas with their hinterlands to ensure efficient and smooth transportation. Speaking of a comprehensive, integrated plan for water transportation infrastructure, the BJP not only talks of developing inland waterways but also focus on the potential of coastal development for tourism, transportation and welfare of the coastal communities under the recently launched Sagarmala programme.

Moving on to the key area of infrastructure related to energy and electrification, the BJP says that it made a commitment in 2014 to provide 24×7 electricity to all and the country has moved in leaps and bounds in that direction. As mentioned previously, this claim is a bit beyond the reality in many parts of the country but the country seems to be heading in the right direction. Even though the BJP government is far from electrifying every home as it had envisioned, it has come a long way by bringing electricity connections to 23.9 million households across 25 states, as per the government’s Press Information Bureau. It is true that exemplary work has been done in boosting the generation of electricity (though there is still a lot to be done on this front) and `in laying down of transmission lines and in putting up the nationwide transmission grid’. With India now apparently becoming a net exporter of electricity, the BJP seeks to now direct its attention at ensuring that a right mix of energy is used for a cleaner environment, supplying quality electricity to all and making state electricity bodies efficient and financially sound.  When it comes to the first point, the BJP highlights that India has `achieved cumulative installed renewable energy capacity of 76.87 GW as on February, 2019′ and is `on track to achieve our goal of 175 GW by 2022′. The BJP seeks to continue efforts in this direction and invite other countries to become members of the International Solar Alliance. Last but not the least,

Human beings need water above all else (arguably). As a result, infrastructure for harnessing and using water resources is extremely important. The BJP looks into this with the first major point being the formation of a Ministry of Water that shall unify `the water management functions to approach the issue of water management holistically and ensure better coordination of efforts’. To highlight the existing, India already has a Ministry of Water Resource, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MOWR). The planned Ministry of Water will also be taking forward the river-linking project conceptualized by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to `ensure a solution to the problems of drinking water and irrigation’. Even though I am highly cautious about the river-water linking project, due to ecological reasons, the BJP seems to be going in the direction of dedicated efforts to make India have enough water in every household, across the country. Besides wanting to launch a ‘Jal Jivan Mission’ with a special programme named ‘Nal se Jal’ to `ensure piped water for every household by 2024′, the BJP also seeks to `ensure sustainability of water supply through special focus on conservation of rural water bodies and ground water recharge’.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan by Ramakrishna Math, Ghatshila, Jharkhand (Courtesy: Ramakrishna Math at https://bit.ly/2KzRAQi)

Last but definitely not the least, going by the principle of ‘cleanliness is next to godliness‘, the BJP plans to continue its ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan‘. They seek to take the Mission to a new level through `sustainable Solid Waste Management in every village’. Through the mission, the BJP seeks to ensure disposal of all liquid waste through `emphasis on faecal sludge management and reuse of waste water in rural, peri-urban and unsewered areas’. One of the key areas of neglect in India on this front has been open defecation and lack of toilets (remember the movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha?). The BJP seeks to ensure that all habitations attain what they call an `open defecation free status’ and that those that already have attained this should be able to sustain this change.

In Conclusion

The largest democratic exercise comes with the largest dilemmas on whom to elect as the next Prime Minister of India. Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. Both the parties have come out with well-made manifestos that cover a whole range of topics. In this analysis I have tried to be as impartial as possible in my assessment when it comes to the poll pitches for infrastructure. I believe that while the BJP has an exciting vision and the necessary gumption to bring meaningful change, the Congress wants to get its basics right though it could do more with novelty in the ideas proposed. Both parties have their strengths and weaknesses, like any other party. I would like my readers to decide after going through the manifestos and my series #ManifestoMusings, of which this is the first article. Mandate 2019 is a massive decision for the fate of the country, and as responsible citizens of the country, it is our duty to take an informed and well-thought-out position.

Every vote counts, every voice is important.

These are exciting times and I look forward to seeing another chapter being inked into the history of modern India on 23 May 2019 when a new government shall take office in India.

Jai Hind!