Matching Realities and Aspirations

Posted by Shyam Ponappa at Feb 01, 2018 11:50 AM |
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Leaving aside fixing the 'mountains' such as land acquisition, NPAs etc, here are some thoughts on systemic focus and action.

The article was published in the Business Standard on January 31, 2018 and in Organizing India Blogspot on February 1, 2018.

There’s an upbeat sense from the annual Economic Survey, and indicators such as soaring stocks and official statements.Yet, the ground realities don’t match because of gritty facts such as not being able to pay electronic tolls on a national highway near Delhi though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controls local administration1, Korean steel giant Posco abandoning a huge investment last year after struggling for over a decade, two public sector divestments, Bharat Aluminium Company and Hindustan Zinc, mired in difficulties2, or the hobbling state of services such as electricity and telecommunications despite short-term consumer benefits from lower prices, and so on. Another aspect is that so many college graduates, including engineers, law students and MBAs, compete for low-end government jobs such as peons in state governments. Clearly, something beyond talkfests and episodic discussions is needed. Leaving aside fixing the “mountains” — the land acquisition act, non-performing assets (NPAs), high component taxes — here are some thoughts on systemic focus and action.

Fix infrastructure

With rare exceptions, our governments do not appear to recognise a clear priority to fix infrastructural deficiencies. After national security and maintaining law and order, correcting critical deficiencies of infrastructure in all its forms needs to be an all-out priority. This is a basic requirement for citizens to function effectively and live well. Without infrastructure one cannot function anywhere near full capacity, because of having to spend time, energy and resources dealing with problems of living and hygiene arising from the non-availability of adequate water and sanitation, inefficient travel and logistics for employment, education or health care, communications, dysfunctional equipment because of power shortages, and so on.Instead, some misconceptions in policies and practices appear to be broadly accepted as driving factors not only in the government, but also to some extent in the public perception. One is that all foreign direct investment (FDI) is a panacea for our ills and aspirations. The second is the idea that for services such as water, electricity and communications, the public interest is best served by the lowest consumer prices for those who get such services, regardless of sustainability. Issues such as access to services for half the population living outside urban areas, high and consistent quality, sustainability, and minimising environmental impact appear to be less important criteria.

The Panacea of FDI?

There’s no question about the need for foreign investment, but uncontrolled FDI, particularly at our stage of development, is inadvisable. One wonders where these forms of the erstwhile East India Company and/or winner-take-all might lead. And does it matter, as long as consumers enjoy good living, defined as access to material comforts at low prices? To see why it does matter, consider these parodied scenarios, with apologies to Jonathan Swift’s satirical A Modest Proposal3.

A Modest Proposal for 100% FDI — A Parody

Imagine how well all consumers could do, this time without leaving the other half out, if we invite the likes of (indicative list, in alphabetic order) Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft (with guarantees of compensation if there are sudden policy reversals, which we are prone to) to use all unsold and unused spectrum to provide connectivity and digital services pronto. They could put in so much investment to get to year five on day one a couple of years or so out, even Reliance Jio might pale.Don’t want Americans? Why not invite the Chinese and Huawei? We might get even better deals in digital services from the world leader in 4G and beyond.Not to mention the attendant benefits from associated companies to keep consumers happy with smartphones, air conditioners, refrigerators, air purifiers, TV sets, cars, two-wheelers, and so on. There will also be power plants, aircraft, and trains, fixing all three sectors with one swipe. Some impediments would have to be removed of course, such as allowing power plants to come up, electricity lines to be laid out, spectrum to be used, land acquired, changes in labour laws, and so on. As for employment, there could be plenty of local assembly, manufacturing and distribution from all of the above, provided we willingly submit to some regimentation in our lives.

Alternative: Fix The Basics & Do It Ourselves
We have to fix the basics to help ourselves and make FDI succeed in our interests. We need priorities in objectives, as everything cannot have the highest priority. Even more difficult is getting experts and practitioners to work out detailed process plans, evaluating alternatives with realistic simulations, and so on. It takes time, energy, understanding and competence, and patience, to get beyond seat-of-pants discussions. Apply all these from a systems perspective, map the distilled ideas to action plans for each set of interrelated processes, and the upshot could be those process plans. We may get end-to-end strategies leading to convergent results to improve our infrastructure, which will enable agricultural and manufacturing production, services, and trade, with resulting jobs, while limiting negative environmental impact.Goals such as increasing jobs and farm income are desirable. To get on a higher long-term growth trajectory beyond a cyclical recovery, in addition to skilling, there need to be initiatives and investments that fit with the circumstances. An excellent example is the Automotive Mission Plan 2006-2016, now in its second 10-year cycle, which resulted in India becoming a preferred automobile assembly location with 32 million jobs in FY16. Similar approaches could be worked out for connectivity, electricity, and the rest, that address the needs/opportunities/markets, the products/services, how delivery will be organised, what the resources are and where they will be sourced from, how they will be organised and when, i.e., the detailed strategy, process plans and flow charts.Also, effective corporate practices such as facilitation for catalysing group decisions could be used if they are not already, to help administrators, experts, and practitioners arrive at sound, practical decisions.4 Another area is simulation and modelling of alternatives and scenarios. A third is overall strategy.

These steps will help improve our ability to achieve our aspirations.

Shyam (no space) Ponappa at gmail dot com1. ‘India’s road to digital highway’, Nivedita Mookerji, Business Standard:
2. ‘India as a ‘business partner’, Kanika Datta, Business Standard:

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