Monday, May 12, 2008

New infrastructure good, but maintain it

The recent developments in aviation, telecom, national highways etc. has prompted a few gushing columns. It is true that today in India we have better domestic & some international flight services. The telecom services are better when compared elsewhere, not to forget them being the cheapest. And the ‘Golden Quadrilateral Project’, though not 100% complete, has improved our national highways. Other projects like the expressways between some of India’s major cities have helped in forming such a view.

Today, on account of new investments in infrastructure, we are experiencing better services in the airlines. Here’s a column by Rajeev Srinivasan comparing services & experience between the domestic airlines in the US & India. Similarly, the telecom revolution has helped Indians be better connected then a few years ago. Gone are the days of cross connections, booking ‘trunk calls’, waiting for a connection & such. Private companies have invested in creating an advanced fiber optic network offering world class services to subscribers. The choices to the consumers are numerous. Cellular consumers are free to choose the carrier they want without being tied to contracts (as it is the west) & are free to switch at any time. However, we still do not have number portability & that’s the only one drawback. But that hasn’t stopped us from being the largest users of cellular services in the world.

In the same manner, investments in creating a quality network of national highways & expressways between some of India’s major cities has improved road travel in terms of time & money. Travel times have gone down considerably & there are fewer delays owing to the monsoons, because the roads don’t deteriorate in quality.

But there is something to watch for. In the US, some of the things that helped it become such an attraction are in a bad shape. The road network is failing in quality. So are the bridges. Recent incidents of collapsing bridges are an indication. Some reports by CNN (I'm not a fan of Lou Dobbs) indicate that amounts in billions of dollars are needed to repair & maintain these bridges & roads. The US made massive investments in building the roads, but today a lot of them are in need of attention. Such heavy investments take longer to break even & it is not easy to keep making investments on a large scale. However, to avoid such situations, periodic investments are necessary for the upkeep of roads & bridges.

The same is true of intra city rail networks like the New York City subways or the New York – New Jersey PATH rail system. These are very old networks that needed massive investments when they were built. Today, they suffer from equipment that is no longer in tune with times. Station platforms that are ill maintained, often filthy. Trains those are old & noisy, sometimes smelly. Overused, over burdened rails that cause power failure frequently causing delays. The situation with the suburban railways is exactly the same.

While we are excited with the investments in infrastructure, it is also important to keep in mind that these will need to be maintained & upgraded when necessary to avoid them becoming an impediment in our future progress. The lessons from examples cited above in the US should be kept in mind to avoid landing ourselves in a similar situation.

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