India will require an estimated $1 trillion (Rs. 55 lakh crore in current prices) to upgrade its roads, highways, ports and airports over the next five years. The time and cost overruns have been a major bane for India's infrastructure hit by fund shortages, environmental concerns and delays in government clearances. From overstretched airports to heavily congested roads, power cuts and strained capacity at ports, India's creaky infrastructure is in striking contrast to the image of a country that is aspiring to be a global economic superpower.
As of September 2012, of the 191 big projects worth Rs. 1,000 crore or more that the Centre monitors month by month, 89 were running late because of pending clearances at ministries and departments. More than a quarter of these delayed projects — 26 to be precise — are stuck at the coal ministry. In the middle of the raging controversy over exclusive mining rights granted to private firms, fresh details are now emerging on how the coal ministry is sitting on many proposals of critical projects with assured supplies from state-owned Coal India Limited (CIL) and its sister firms. These projects with investments worth Rs. 1,24,745 crore can potentially generate thousands of megawatts of electricity that this power-starved country desperately needs, besides spinning out thousands of new jobs. It is not just the coal ministry where projects are trapped for want of sanctions. Roads, power, environment, mining, petroleum and telecommunications — all are responsible for dithering over several projects which are important to get off the ground if policy-makers are serious about reversing the embarrassing slowdown in an economy that until recently was an engine of global growth.
Finance minister P Chidambaram is acutely aware that, like cricket, economic turnaround is also a glorious game of timing and pace. Quick decision-making and speedier implementation are vital to overhaul its collapsing infrastructure, which, if built, could potentially catalyse every sector, from farm to factory. Justifiably, he has made a strong pitch for setting up a national investment board (NIB) headed by the prime minister to fast-track vital projects. This is a welcome first step and one hopes that the government demonstrates its intent by quickly notifying this body. In June, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had asked all ministries to go the "extra mile" for implementing infrastructure projects and expeditiously resolve any inter-ministerial differences or turf battles that might arise. Last week, Mr Singh silenced his critics with an action-packed booster shot for reforms, boldly ushering in foreign direct investment in retail and aviation, a day after he bit the bullet on fiscal discipline by increasing the prices of diesel and cooking gas. It's now about time to give the extra push for the extra mile on project execution.