The old adage about two Indias moving on parallel tracks is buttressed by the about to be released India Infrastructure Report 2006, which shows just how disconnected the two really are. The report, based on a National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) study, shows that Indian metros may be shining but rural India is still fumbling about in the dark in the four crucial sectors of telecommunications, power, water and roads. Rural connectivity has often been held up as a way of leapfrogging into the Gatesian millennium, but sadly, a dismal 1.67 per cent has telephone connections in villages while the figure for cities is 25.9 per cent. A staggering 217,000 villages do not have safe drinking water and 55 per cent villages are off the surfaced road track. As for power, forget it. Much of India, except states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu, lives in darkness.
Obviously, this scenario cannot continue. The Indian economy is booming at an 8 per cent plus growth rate and everyone has the right to expect a piece of the cake, howsoever small. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on the right track when he says that a spurt in economic growth cannot be meaningful if only half of India is smiling. We can no longer persist with the mindset that there can forever be a substantial difference between rural and urban India. In fact, with rural to urban migration speeding up, the two can no longer be treated as distinct entities. The UPA government is seized of the fact that rural development has to be priority if we are to sustain the present growth rate.
But the task is too varied and vast for the government alone to cope with. This is where much greater emphasis on private-public partnership is called for. The private sector must be wooed with incentives to focus greater attention on rural areas. Where private enterprise has taken the initiative, the results have been heartening. But the government must back the private sector every step of the way. The private sector today realises that its own productivity is crucially dependent on a steady pace of growth in rural areas from where the bulk of resources come. The IIR 2006 makes this clear. The dance of democracy is primarily a public-private tango. So, let’s get the steps right.