Q&A with Akshima Tejas Ghate: The Future of Indian Infrastructure

The future of infrastructure in India will require $20 billion in infrastructure for 20 years if India is to compete in the global economy. Photo by Meena Kadri.

Akshima Tejas Ghate, a fellow at TERI , one of India’s largest think tanks, has highlighted India’s future transportation infrastructure investments.

According to Ghate, to keep pace with growing demand, the world’s largest democracy will have to invest $20 billion per year for the next 20 years, simply to accomodate the 450 million more vehicles that will tax India’s roads by 2030.

We sat down with her to assess the role that sustainable public transport will have in these investments, and what the state could do to implement affordable solutions for sustainable transport.


In your presentation, you note the incredible investments required to sustain growth in India, nearly $400 billion over the next two decades? Though that is small percentage of GDP for the $1.8 trillion economy, is there a nationwide commitment to this level of spending?

The nation-wide commitment to this level of spending would be clear only when the 12th FYP (Five-Year-Plan) is formally announced. However, the positive change that can be taken away is that the Ministry of Urban Development has proposed to the Planning Commission a detailed and thought-through investment requirement plan for the sector. A paradigm shift in estimating urban transport financing can be observed with a significant amount of investment being proposed for public transit and non-motorized transport, in addition to the conventional spending for road infrastructure improvements and expansion.


Is there institutional capacity to handle this level of investment?

The institutional capacity to see through this bold plan doesn’t exist. There is a lot that needs to be done on this front. Indeed, the success of hefty investments in the sector would lie only in creating robust institutional capacity to utilize these funds judiciously. Implementation of JNNURM-I has demonstrated inadequate institutional mechanisms, lack of staff, lack of understanding among staff on issues of sustainable mobility and so on. These institutional mechanisms have to be created and staff needs to expanded, sensitized and trained. Such a capacity building exercise will require more than what is currently being done by the national government. Holding cities’ hands in addition to developing toolkits, resource materials, organizing trainings will all be the key in my view.


What can India learn from China and their massive transport infrastructure build-out?

I feel that China is rightly investing in public transit systems, be it long-distance transport or intra-city transport. The massive drive in China to construct high speed rail system and the BRT indicates the direction that India could also adopt i.e. build more competitive mass-transport systems. The recent focus in many Chinese cities on demand management (car quota system in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing) is also something that India can learn from.


What are the political risks behind implementing a petrol tax to pay for roads, as in the EU and United States?

Firstly, I believe that petrol tax should go into public transit and non motorized transport; not roads. This will be a sensitive political issue for India as has been observed in the recent petrol price hikes. In my view, the central government would run risk of losing a significant urban vote share on account of such a measure and would be very cautious in further enhancing these taxes or introducing new taxes for investments in urban transport.


What can India learn from more developed countries and their past road and transit system build outs?

Developed countries as a case studies provide has focused on ‘car oriented planning’  and should not serve as role models. In fact if we look at the current state of affairs, we in India are progressing in this direction only. We have very high car ownership levels in our largest cities (75 to 200 cars per 1,000 persons in our 5 most populated cities) despite low per capita incomes as compared to cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have very high level of per capita income and still low level of car ownership. There may be some good examples from the developed world, but we need to be careful regarding whom we follow.


Is there a role for private finance in developing transport?

Private sector, as seen in some urban transit projects lately, would/can have a big role. City governments, which are quite weak financially can tap into the private financing by creating the right environment for them to invest.

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