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The ministers that really matter

By Govindraj Ethiraj
May 26, 2009 13:02 IST
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Walking through the swank new Terminal 1D catching a domestic flight out of Delhi was a pleasant surprise two weeks ago. For day one of transition for my airline, the predictable chaos was missing, both outside and inside, except for a slight mix-up in lines at check-in.

And the terminal, well, it looked and felt like one -- not a hastily constructed Public Works Department effort which could have been used either as an administrative building for the animal husbandry department or an airport terminal. Or maybe there should not be a difference since cattle movements are involved in both cases.

It took me a little while to figure out what was wrong. Which is, to put it simply, the terminal already looked like it was overflowing. And that's a good sign you might think. Well, no, for all the well-designed, brightly coloured food courts, shops and kiosks, if this was a building for 2020 or whatever, then it was already running out of space, in 2009.

Yes, I know this will become the low-cost airline terminal while the rest will move to the new Terminal 3, scheduled to open next year. And of course, no aerobridges either. So we will wait for Terminal 3 when it opens. And till then, we will suffer, albeit in a more dignified manner.

The city of Mumbai is going through fresh rounds of excavations and on-road constructions. It is impossible to do a 10 km suburban journey, north to south or east to west in less than an hour. Or so it seems. And the mother of all traffic jams will be inaugurated when the new, much awaited Bandra-Worli Sealink opens, allegedly in June.

Thousands of cars will hit the exit road perpendicularly and simultaneously and then struggle to turn. The good news is that the view from the Sealink, when you are backed up 6 km on the bridge, will be good.

The original plan was to build a continuation of the same bridge to Nariman Point in south Mumbai and Worli would have been one exit. Now this is the only exit and no sign of the extension. And this is Mumbai's biggest infrastructure project, perhaps since Independence.

These are small examples of projects and responsibilities which do not come under the purview of the ministres of finance, home, external affairs, railways and defence, the 'critical' ministries where portfolios have been awarded and ministers put to work.

Instead, they will come under aviation, surface transport, urban renewal, IT & Telecom and HRD.

So it's not clear to me how a party with a majority will do any better when our ability to tackle the roads, ports, power projects and airports problem has not shown marked improvement in the last five years. Forgive me for I tend to compare with what China does in these time frames.

At least as a benchmark. As Mastek founder Ashank Desai said to me in a discussion on counting day, "The challenge is to execute, execute or get executed."

The Union Budget presented by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee will not contain the fireworks the stockmarkets have hailed in anticipation, but even if the odd sop does find its way in (including a promise of more cheap money), it will do little to change things on the ground.

And given the massive debt challenges, any fiscal sop does look difficult. So, budgetary pronouncements or allocations will do little when it comes to the final legs of the GQ Highway system, or one road stretch in Mumbai which does not induce multiple slipped discs or delays.

So what I am watching is to see how Information Technology & Communications and/or Telecom get farmed out. Or Human Resources Development. Tavleen Singh in her Sunday Express column said she did the bhangra on hearing of Arjun Singh's ejection. But it's not about how forward looking the new minister is, it's about what he will really do and how fast.

Then come steel, fertilisers and chemicals, and social welfare, ministries we assume run on auto pilot. Actually they mostly do. But in steel the biggest problem is not managing output, it's about creating the input for new plants, of which practically none have come up in the last five or six years. And not because there were no funds. And that problem will get resolved soon too.

I have often asked CEOs such as Tata Steel's B Muthuraman, "What can the central government do if the problem is local?"

Well, the belief amongst business leaders like him is that the central government can indeed get things going by playing a more active and participatory role in the process, mostly in the run-up to the actual construction. Which is where most projects have hit massive roadblocks.

That includes steel and aluminum projects from L N Mittal, Vedanta/Sterlite and, of course, Tata Steel. In Orissa and Jharkhand. Or the many power projects from Reliance Power.

And if you were thinking of the special economic zone route offering a way out, forget it, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee has already raised the red flag. To be fair, she may have a point in opposing SEZs, considering they are not what they were supposed to be -- vehicles of industrialisation and progress as opposed to land grab exercises gone totally awry.

And finally, let's not even get into telecom. The conclusion to all this is not very encouraging, since most of our euphoria is based on things not getting worse, rather than really getting better.

The author is Editor, UTVi Business.

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Govindraj Ethiraj
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