Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Power Problem: India’s Infrastructure Dilemma

Jack Barton

Trains were stranded during the power failure. AP.
A few weeks ago the second-largest nation on earth, one possessing nuclear arms and a space program, suffered the largest power cut in history.  After two days India, of course, carried on as if unaffected but the true financial implications may never really be clear.
Power cuts are of little concern to people living in India, they are an irritation but for most a minor and regular one.  When I lived in Bangalore, India’s IT capital, local government administered rolling power cuts whenever power looked low or even when it didn’t in the build-up to occasions such as Global Investors Week lest potential investors be put off by an embarrassing power failure.  Herein lies the true potential for damage, the question of what the power cut may have done to India’s image and prestige.
It is doubtful that the power cut alone will really have much of an effect, but it is a telling example of what is possibly the biggest challenge facing India and its struggle to enter the modern world: a lack of infrastructure.  This is a desperately difficult problem to face for a country as large as India but it is a stimulant for almost all of the problems the Indian people are struggling to overcome; inadequate roads mean India has the highest traffic casualty rate in the world, healthcare schemes are not delivered properly resulting in 42% malnutrition rates among children, the military cannot work effectively against growing insurgencies, the police fail to deal with the smuggling of drugs, guns and thousands of child slaves every year.
Inadequate infrastructure does not only hamper progress in these issues and impact India’s image and ability to attract investment, it seriously endangers India’s progress as a member of the BRICS on the road to becoming a Great Power.  Money is pouring into India, but this is slowing and failure to invest in infrastructure means this does not reach those at the bottom of the ladder, combine this with a completely inadequate education system and a young population and all of these problems could just get worse.
Put simply, India is not as modern or reliable as our politicians like to think.  Progress is being made, most recently in a healthcare bill, an ambitious food plan and a new commitment to tackle child slavery, but international politics threatens the potential of any new plans.
Earlier this year, a diplomatic row was caused by Indian officials saying they did not want aid money from the UK anymore.  Due to the space program and the recent commitment to spend $13 billion on new fighter jets, alongside a survey stating that India possessed more poverty than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa it was easy to see this as a question of international image.  What was possibly a more powerful incentive however was a profound fear for the country’s independence.
What makes this fear difficult to negotiate for Western leaders is that it is probably a very sensible one.  The strategic advantages of influence over India would be obvious to any Western leader and what’s more, as far as the West is concerned, they have something to offer in exchange.  The problem is compounded by India’s government which has the task of running a huge and diverse country yet is dogged by scandals and operates a clumsy and corruption-ridden bureaucracy.
With better infrastructure, the government would be more effective, it would require less aid and could grow truly independently.  India’s dilemma is that the threat of Western domination undermines their willingness to receive the help that could make this real.
What is needed is a change of approach from both sides, the Indian Government must acknowledge that financial and expert help will bring about the benefits they need but the West must be willing to provide this on the basis of an equal partnership.  I do not believe that our Governments still see India through some post-colonial haze of nostalgia, but they do need to stop seeing it as a cure-all for problems in Asian foreign policy.  They need to trust in the fact that allowing India to prosper will bring about stability in the region without Western powers pulling all of the strings.  India may well one day be a Great Power, but it will never be that and an ally to Western powers unless we stop trying to influence and take a piece of that power ourselves.

1 comment:

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