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INTERVIEW - Delhi metro shows the way for India infrastructure
NEW DELHI |
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's efforts to build badly needed infrastructure will get a boost from the Congress party's strong mandate for reform, but the country needs sweeping changes in how it implements projects, Delhi's metro chief said.
The capital's shiny metro system, built ahead of schedule and within budget, is a rare example of how big construction projects can be efficiently completed in India to spur its economic rise, but bureaucratic meddling makes its success hard to copy.
Led by the understated Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, a 77-year-old civil engineer, the subway enjoys strong government support and is not shackled by the delays, cost-overruns and red tape that have plagued big projects in India for decades.
Despite the Delhi metro's success, Sreedharan said India lags far behind Asia's other emerging economic giant, China, in fast implementation, often because of New Delhi's short-sighted planning, a lack of political will and government interference.
"That vision or determination that things should move fast, that's not available in our country," he said in an interview. "Unfortunately what is happening is that everybody wants to control things. Nobody wants to take responsibility."
But times may be changing. The Congress party won a decisive election victory in May and reaped a strong mandate to push economic reforms, even as it emphasises inclusive growth.
"It will definitely make a difference. There will really be a good push towards infrastructure projects," said Sreedharan, who is the managing director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corp.
"Only thing is the implementation style has to change. You see with the present implementation style, the government will not be able to achieve much."
The government will unveil its budget for the current fiscal year on Monday, with investors hoping it takes steps to accelerate development of infrastructure in a country plagued by inadequate transport and power.
On Thursday, a government economic survey said India could return to growth of 8.5-9 percent growth if it accelerates reforms and infrastructure development.
The subway's first phase opened in 2005 within a budget of $2.3 billion and nearly three years ahead of schedule.
Some 99.5 percent of trains arrive on time at platforms that are a far cry from India's overground railway system. The stations are quiet, cool and free from the multitude of tea and food vendors. The maximum ticket price is 45 cents.
Sreedharan says he cuts through multi-layered bureaucracy and retains much authority because, unlike most projects, the central and state government have joint control.
"The decision-making process is very fast here," he said. "This model has worked because neither the state government nor the central government were unnecessarily meddling into the scheme. They were not allowed to meddle."
The second phase, which will cost $4.5 billion and boasts a high-speed airport link beneath the capital's clogged and at times chaotic roads, is on track for when the city of 16 million hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
MONEY AND YOGA
Sreedharan said many of India's building projects grind to a halt from a lack of government funds. In contrast, his metro takes only around a third of its cash from the government but still manages to turn a profit.
In addition to ticket sales, the metro generates revenue from an IT park and advertising revenue.
Sreedharan said some state governments show the necessary dynamism to press ahead with projects, adding that bureaucratic hurdles can be overcome with greater political will.
But even phase 3 of his own metro project lacks the benefit of precise government forward-planning.
"This is lacking in our country. Whereas China, for the next 15 years they have worked out a plan for every city," he said.
Sreedharan's work ethic has a spiritual bent. Before and after work, he practices yoga and meditation, and devotes time to reading Hindu spiritual texts. Trainees follow the example -- they must sign up to a yoga and meditation course.
His office, like many others in the organisation, has a digital clock counting down days to the next section deadline.
Sreedharan's reputation, access to officials including the prime minister, and a mandate to jump obstacles himself rather than wait for civic authorities, enable him to get results.
"If a huge water pipeline is to be shifted, they would take two years for that. Whereas we were able to get it done in 30 days," Sreedharan said.
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