Friday, 27 May 2016

The Road to Development

I read an article some weeks ago, which stated the highways ministry has built highways at the speed of 17 kms per day over the last year or so. It may look like a mere statistic to city slickers like us, but ask anyone living in the villages what it means, and he's likely to tell you that it could be the difference between abject poverty and a dignified existence.

I realised it from first hand experience about a decade ago, when I was on the way to Satna, from a client's plant. The driver- a native of the nearby village- told me that construction of the road on which we were driving was a Godsend for the village. The villagers were predominantly farmers for whom the road meant easy access to the town market. That was not possible until the construction of the road, which left them entirely at the mercy of middlemen. Apparently, the presence of that road had lifted the people of his village from utter poverty to a relatively comfortable existence in just a generation.

That obscure little village is a small place that's far too insignificant to merit so much as a dot on the map of India. Nevertheless, the story of that village could well be taken as a microcosm of rural India. The importance of a good road network cannot possibly be overstated or exaggerated.

Imagine a situation where your mother or your child has a medical emergency. What would you first do? Rush to the doctor's place, isn't it? Now imagine if that trip is on a kuchha road which is in such pathetic condition that you cannot possibly drive fast. We may have bad roads in our cities, but we have ambulances or at worst, cars as opposed to the open air tractors in which our rural compatriots have to travel. Goodness knows how many people have had their health irreparably damaged while being driven on bumpy roads and how many died because they could not get medical attention in time.

Besides, imagine the impact on the families of the affected. There is, for starters, the loss of a working member of the house or he/ she working at significantly diminished capacity. That in turn would impact the lives of the children- more so if the affected person happens to be the mother.

Another under appreciated aspect is a social one. There are school kids in some backward regions who miss out on school due to the absence of good roads. Even a few kilometres could be a huge distance to travel if there is no connecting road. If travelling the distance on a daily basis is daunting, dropouts/ non-enrollment could become common. As you can imagine, girl children would be the first to be affected. Godness knows how many talented people have been lost over the years due to the absence of good roads.

Construction of highways also opens up new avenues in the form of food courts and hotels along the route, which would not only benefit entrepreneurs, but also generate employment for the local populace. There is also the fact that highways give a boost to sectors like tourism and logistics, which in turn would generate demand for derivative services like banking and insurance. 

In short, the construction of highways has a multiplier effect on the economy. For every mile of excellent roads, there are scores of people whose lives have been profoundly changed for the better.

And so the next time you drive down the highway, just remember that it isn't merely a smooth road for your vehicle to ply on. It is the road to India's development.

This the updated version of an article of mine that appeared in the now defunct website in April 2012

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Congress Bags a Pair

Today, 19th May 2016 could prove a historic day in the evolution of the political landscape in India. Having had a track record for getting predictions spectacularly wrong, I believe that for once, I have reason to myself pat myself in the back. 

About eighteen months ago, I had said in this very blog that we might be witnessing the beginning of the end for the Indian National Congress. Today's election results confirm the trend. The Congress has lost power in Assam and Kerala. The opportunistic alliances it forged with DMK in Tamil Nadu and its leftist partners in West Bengal have both bitten the dust. Just as significantly, BJP has made inroads in states like Assam and Kerala, where it has historically never even had a presence.

There is not the least doubt now, that the BJP is rapidly coming to occupy the position that the Congress once did. The 'grand old' party is rapidly descending into the dustbin of history. Only a miracle can save it now. 

To explain my point, I have given below the political map of India as it stood in July 2013 (With apologies for my designing skills- or rather the lack thereof). The green shade denotes states ruled by the Congress either singly or in coalition back then. The states shaded in Orange were ruled by BJP- either singly or in coalition. The ones in Red were communist ruled state, while those in blue were ruled by other parties.

Map 1: Political Landscape of India (2013)

Witness the pre-dominantly green (Congress ruled) landscape, with the odd smattering of Orange (BJP Ruled) as of July 2013. BJP had just ceded Karnataka to Congress at the time and it was just a few weeks since Nitish Kumar had broken off his alliance with them. 

Contrast that with the political landscape as it stands today. Witness how the BJP (Orange) has assumed power- singly or in coalition- all the way from Kashmir to Goa, while Congress now retains only one major state (I have shaded Andhra Pradesh in Blue, even though the BJP is part of the ruling alliance there).

Map 2: Political Landscape of India (2016)

The situation could soon turn much worse for the Congress due to two factors. One, north-eastern states tend to swing in favour of the party in power at the centre. With Assam gone, it is perfectly possible that other north-eastern states will follow suit (elections in most north-eastern states are due in 2017-18). Two, popular dissatisfaction in Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh- the remaining states where it is still in power- could see the party suffer reverses there too. Sonia Gandhi & Co have their task cut out if they are to even remain in the race leading up to 2019.

The shrinking electoral footprint naturally means that the numerical superiority which the Congress currently enjoys in Rajya Sabha- the main reason why they still remain relevant in national politics- will erode even further in 2017, when many current members will lay down office, to be replaced by nominees from states no longer controlled by the party.

To be sure, temporary downturns in fortunes are not unusual in politics. However, the Congress is experiencing something far more serious than a cyclical phenomenon. It has historically never managed to win back any major state where it lost power (The only exception being Maharashtra, but there too, the Congress was the single biggest party when it lost power in 1995). Out of the 10 electorally most important states (which account for 382 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha), Karnataka is the only state where they are in power. 

Political Landscape of India (2013 v 2016)

Dig deeper, and the situation looks even worse. In five out of the remaining nine states, they have not been in power for at least two decades now. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh (lost in 2014), anti-Congress sentiment is strong after a decade of corruption and misgovernance. Chances of their regaining power in those states are pretty slim. It does not help that they do not have a single prominent leader in any of those states, thanks to the vice like grip exercised by the party's first family.

In fact the first family has successfully ensured that no other leader of stature has risen in its ranks, which means that they alone will have to shoulder the burden of turning around the party's fortunes. To say that their prospects are bleak would be optimistic, struggling as they are with a fragmented leadership distributed between an aged matriarch and a man who seems to have neither the aptitude nor the desire for it.

Writing on this subject in November 2014, I had said "Whisper it if you may, but we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Congress,". You can say it out loud now.