Ideas on the Road to Development

Last Thursday I hitched a ride from Pune to Mumbai in a friend’s car. Don’t be dismayed; this is not one of those personal blog posts “What I had for breakfast last week Thursday” types.

We set off bright and early in Nitin’s Mahindra Scorpio, a largish SUV-type car. The car is alright on a well-paved road but you get bounced around like crazy on badly paved pot-holed roads, especially if you elected to ride in the back seat like I did. For nearly 200 kms, we bounced along with only minor stretches of adequately-paved level road. Around half of the journey was on what is called the Pune-Mumbai “expressway.” You can maintain speeds of up to 120 kmph on that stretch, except for those bits that wind through the mountainous Western Ghats around Lonavla.

Most people seem to take horribly constructed and terribly patched roads for granted in India, just as they take the severely congested chokingly narrow streets with bumper to bumper traffic as totally normal and acceptable. The other day, when I was remarking on this fact, a friend responded, “India is an under-developed poor country. You should not expect to have good roads like they have in rich countries.” That, I realized, is a telling comment. My friend is an intelligent, educated person. Yet he missed what I consider a foundational fact about the world we live in.

He believed that because India was an underdeveloped economy that the roads were bad. He got the causality wrong. It is because the roads are bad (among other things) that India is a poor economy. That distinction is important. In fact, I think that being able to make that sort distinctions is one of the most important skills that our education system should impart, and which it consistently fails to do. Nearly everyone with normal intelligence would be able to figure out the flaw in the statement, “People are sick because they are in the hospital” and would correctly note that “People are in the hospital because they are sick.” But when it comes economic development, they accept all sorts of nonsense without a peep.

[Footnote: I have written in the past about the nonsense about PCs and development. Regular readers of this blog will see the connection.]

The important implication of this is that if you wait to become developed before you improve your roads, you are likely to wait a little longer than forever. In other words, development follows good roads (among other things), and not the other way around. So, first fix the roads if you want to develop. More generally, a good transportation system (roads, railways, ports, airports) is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for development. While we are at it, we may as well note that a good educational system is also a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for development. It is silly to say that we will have a good educational system after we have become developed, because if you don’t have a good educational system, you will not develop, period.

Anyway, back to the Pune-Mumbai road. As we made our way through the winding roads near Lonavla, I noted a peculiar thing. The pavement seemed OK if you were not too finicky about it being too smooth. The bouncing around was not bone-jarring; it was merely a steady vibration somewhat like you were sitting on your washing machine as it was spinning with an unbalanced load of clothes in it. Just the sort of thing that induces a pleasant drowsiness. Tough luck if you are the driver, however. The peculiar thing I noted was that the winding road was not banked properly. As the road twisted and turned going up and down the hills, it was mostly level. At places there was a very minor degree of banking but not sufficient for the recommended speed, and worse still, at some places, the banking was contrary to what it should have been.

[Footnote: Banking a road means that seen at cross-section, when the road curves around a bend, its outer edge is higher than the inner edge. The degree of banking and the severity of the curvature of the bend determines the speed at which the bend can be safely negotiated.]

I am not a civil engineer with a specialization in highway construction. But anyone with the most basic understanding of mechanics can notice that banking of roads ensures stability of the vehicles as they negotiate a bend. It is not rocket science. All over the world, if one cares to notice, roads are banked so that it is safe to travel at the designated speed. The Mumbai-Pune expressway was the pride and joy of the state built at enormous cost. But the designers and builders had built something that was not just costly but also dangerous. They did not think.

They had not thought and clearly it was dangerous to drive on it at a reasonable speed. You had to slow down into a crawl if you did not wish your vehicle to slide to the outside of the curve, which you would not have to do if the road was properly banked. As we drove along at even moderate speeds, I found myself thrown around the car by centrifugal forces. I realized that many of the accidents we see around those bends were because the road was improperly designed.

So this morning I was not the least surprised to read in the papers the following item:

Traffic on the Mumbai-Pune expressway … was thrown out of gear for over 20 hours since late Tuesday night after a 100-tonne generator slipped off a trailer and fell on the road … [at] the Bhor Ghat section.

Consider millions of dollars of loss in terms of lost time and damaged equipment. That the generator has to be totally written off is a first-order loss. Then there is the loss of time and energy from the traffic jam and diversion of traffic, which is a second-order loss. There are higher order losses: the factory or power plant that was waiting for the generator will suffer a loss, for instance. In a modern economy, losses propagate and accumulate. If one did a rough estimate of the total losses incurred over the life-time of the badly designed Pune-Mumbai expressway, it could amount to tens of billions of rupees. All because of the utter and sheer stupidity of the people who designed it.

I have often argued that national poverty can be seen as the result of collective stupidity. It is a stark realization and it makes me very uncomfortable. It is outrageous and many people find my baldly asserting the possibility that Indians are collectively stupid very offensive. It is as if I have claimed that their mama was so fat that she fills the Gap when she goes shopping, and besides she wears combat boots. Ok, I agree that I am deliberately provocative when I make that claim. Truth is India is not alone in being poor as a result of collective stupidity; all the other poor third-world over-populated countries also suffer from collective stupidity induced poverty.

Poverty, as has been pointed out, is the result of two gaps: the objects gap and the ideas gap. The objects gap is when you don’t have sufficient stuff–the stuff that you eat, wear, live in, make things out of, and so on. The ideas gap is when you don’t know how to use the stuff you have very effectively. It is about not mixing what little you have properly and making a mess of the whole thing. The ideas gap arises from being too stupid to not even copy what others have figured out.

So which is primary: objects or ideas? I think ideas are primary. Even if you have little, you can do well if your ideas are good. Conversely, even if you are given a lot, if you don’t have good ideas, you end up achieving pathetically little.

Where do the ideas come from? Some from us, definitely, but mostly from others. No one is so smart that we can figure it all out by ourselves. What we need to have is the attitude which says, “I will seek out smart ideas, adapt them to my needs, and adopt them. I don’t care who it was who came up with the smart idea, I don’t care about how old or how recent the idea is, I don’t care whether is domestic or foreign. As long as it is a good idea, I will go for it.”

I think in the end, just as the success or failure of an individual is to a large extent dictated by his attitude, the collective attitude of the people matter. Being xenophobic is a dangerous attitude, as is the attitude of insisting on total and uncompromising self-reliance.

Did India at some point collectively forget the ancient Rig Vedic invocation, “Let Noble Thoughts Come to Us from All Universe”?

24 thoughts on “Ideas on the Road to Development

  1. I just moved to Mumbai from NYC and, although I have visited many times, actually living here has made me realize the horrendous condition of our infrastructure. As I am a newcomer, I was wondering if you could tell me what factors are driving infrastructure development in the country now? My understanding is that it is a public/private partnership model and from reading banking/consulting reports things are slated to get better rather quickly (as quick as you can be developing infrastructure). Does that seem like a correct assertion?

    Atanu’s response: Azeem, the matter of the factors which are driving infrastructure deserves a separate post. The problem in short can be traced to public goods (as economists understand them) and the little matter of what is called the “tragedy of the commons.”


  2. I agree with you completely on several aspects. However, it is dangerous to simply borrow ideas from other places and try to implement them. The local institutions should support them as well. If we do not have the requisite institutions in place then borrowing even the best ideas is not useful. This is something that has been constantly overlooked in India when NGOs and institutions like World Bank fund projects in India. In the absence of similar institutions the projects need to be tweaked to performance in India, which is sadly not done and then we blame the ideas for not working. That is another reson why laws against child labour do not work in India and have terrible consequences. Similarly industry standards. A very common example is the bumper sticker “How is my driving call xxx-xxx-xxxx if its terrible”. In the US if the driver ahead you is bad and has such a sticker you would call and complain. The same idea has been borrowed by BPO taxis in India (maybe because the parent company has such rules). Does it have any effect on driving practices of these drivers? Even if you call and complain all they get is a warning and they are back on the road. Ideas are not to be implemented out of context of the institutions.

    Atanu’s response: Do the words “I will seek out smart ideas, adapt them to my needs, and adopt them” mean anything to you? Does the word “adapt” mean anything?


  3. You make a rather conspicuous yet imperative observation. But one must not forget the role of Govt. and its interaction with the private sector. The process in US and India is, hypothetically speaking, the same. That is, both countries impose a tender based system where the private investors put in tenders for something like a highway construction. But then the devil lies in the details. The standards in the US, for starters, as you imply, are not as loose as they are in India. Panama canal was a splendid example of how well the US govt. operated even a 100 years ago. Also, the repercussions of permit raj are still quite visible in the system. Yes it is true that we are opening up to privatization, but there still remains a large gap between what we have today and what we desire – a near perfect market that allocates its scare resources most efficiently. And it is this gap that you and I have to bridge. A bridge that is built with banking in mind!!!


  4. Thoroughly agreed with all you have said. The sea change in the attitude cannot be brought overnight. Perhaps increased accountability and incentives along with embedding of the attitude in the primary education level can be a start?


  5. I personaly dont even see it as collectively being stupid but as individualy people being stupid.
    When i was in india, we had a severe trash problem the cities garbage collection was never there, and people had the stupid idea of just brushing trash out including last nights dinner/kitchen waste out to the street.
    A neighbor suggested that we run a communal block wise garbage collection and compost so that the nala does not get blocked,
    where did that go. I was the only one who signed on and was willing to pay some money….
    Yet I was threatened 2wice for not paying enough for ganesh chaturthi chanda collection….


  6. I happened to travel through parts of South Interior Karnataka over the last couple of months and I must say that the roads here have improved a lot over what I saw 5 years back. And you can actually see that it makes a lot of difference to the people who live there. The local economy. And not to mention the time saved when you travel from Bangalore to Mysore or Hassan or Chickamagalore. And the all the small towns around them. I hope that they keep improving.


  7. Atanu,
    I couldn’t agree more about the distinction that you’ve flagged — “It is because the roads are bad (among other things) that India is a poor economy.” Infrastructure is the enabler. We are seeing the benefits of a robust and dynamic telecom industry — not just to the rich and the middle class, but also to the farmer, the roadside vendor, to the (very) small businessman. States with good roads make the state richer, as they do the residents of the state. We’ve all seen that poor roads make Bihar and MP poorer, and it’s not the state that was poor to begin with.
    Ideas definitely take primacy. It was a Marathi magazine called Baliraja which was almost singlehandedly responsible for the strawberry revolution in Maharashtra and for the information dissemination on drip irrigation in Maharashtra, Gujarat and parts of Andhra Pradesh.
    Farmers actually required less, rather than more, money — but the ideas were absent till they read about it.


  8. Atanu,
    Some are in the hospital because they are sick. Others are sick because they are in the hospital. Still others, they are in the hospital because they have nowhere else to go. Then there are those who work at the hospital. I mean, I could go on and on, but you get my point – India is a huge, complex hospital. You could even say India is a huge hospital complex🙂

    Lately every blogpost of yours takes some goody-goody simplistic one-dimensional textbook stance towards some very complex problem, and then finishes on an offensive note. Let me try to cheer you up with some personal observations from India.

    One of my close friends owns a cycle-repair shop. Every morning, one of the boys who work in that shop go to the road and drop tiny sharp nails, inconspicuously ofcourse.
    We all know why he does that. Otherwise he would not have a livelihood.

    I have been a victim of those nails several times. When I took my punctured cycle to his shop, the boys would carefully take out the nails ( they can re-use them🙂, mend the puncture and set me on my way. Sometimes I would come back because there were more nails down the road. In this manner, I have lost several productive man-hours in my school & college life. But that is a small price to pay for the sake of that cycle-shop owner and all the boys who work there. Btw, after all these years, he is still in business and he now employs close to 30 boys.

    Now if I take some lawyers, cops and close-circuit cameras, and catch that boy sprinkling nails, and then get the cycle-shop sealed, yes, I and all my fellow residents will have so many productive man-hours, perhaps so productive the sensex would go up by 100 basis points just because of us🙂 But at the same time, those 30 illiterate boys who work there – they will take to petty crime, thievery, harassment, arson. So it is a tradeoff. We put up with the occasional puncture so we don’t have crime in our locality.

    Btw, no cop would arrest that cycle-shop owner. The cops knows but he gets paid off. The cobbler, he knows too because he mends the shoes when the nails poke through them. The tea shop owner knows, because he sells chai and biscuits to the people getting their puncture mended! Everybody knows.

    Now this is a story of my street in India, the story of some 45 people. Now you take this story and scale it up by all the millions of Indian streets and cycle shops and you will see who is collectively stupid.

    The cycle-shop owner is not sprinkling nails because he is an idiot. Let me tell you about another figurative cycle-shop owner, the Head Of Department of the engineering college where I studied. He would start teaching Thermodynamics, then gloss over all the details, and when we raise hands and ask questions, he would say – well there is only so much time, I cannot explain everything in the classroom. Why don’t you take tuitions with me ?!! See, this HOD is an IIT educated PhD. Even he is ultimately a cycle-repair shop owner. He is not content with his miserable wages paid by the university, so he plants these nails in the classroom so that the students can get their mental punctures mended at his private tuitions. Again, this is just 1 university, 1 HOD. But you scale it up, you get the big picture.

    I am not trying to say there is some giant conspiracy afoot in India, trying to keep it from becoming a rich country. Just that India is rich in its own way – all these PhDs and cycle-repair guys, cops,cobblers,chaiwalas co-exist in their native eco-system by solving each other’s artificially-created problems. Yes, it is all quite repulsive to a straight-thinking well-meaning highly educated developmental economist, but from the pov of the natives, the economist can go stuff himself. When you say the civil engineers and designers of the highway did not think, you are dead wrong. They all thought quite deeply – about their own interests. Their incentives are just not aligned with the incentive of the economist.

    It is a very complex hospital, my friend. Some are sick and choose to stay there, others stay there because they are sick, still others..


  9. 1] China has been investing heavily in her infrastructure. Maybe, this exlplains why India is economically lagging far behind China. Relatively speaking, manufacturing of goods is non-existent in India.

    2] The Mumbai-Pune Expressway is a typical example of misplaced investments, miniscule as they are, in infrastructure. And so are the investments in the Mumbai and Delhi Expressway systems. What percentage of the population benefit from these examples of aping of the US? Alternatively, the mass transit systems need to be improved. Delhi Metro is a step in the right direction.


  10. Atanu,

    Sorry to see a great intellectual like yourself wasting your time. The country needs realignment of the power structures before any significant economic development can take place.

    In India, investments in infrastruture appear to be guided by interests other than those of the general population and the country as a whole. Vested interests of politicians and other members of the power structures dictate misplaced investments. It is a feedback loop system going towards instability. Politicians need money to win elections. Political power is, therefore, abused to perpetuate power. In India, we need to eliminate the need for funds required for winning elections. Again, aping the democracies of the developed nations won’t help.


  11. Hi Atanu,

    Among many other articles on similar and related subjects, I believe this one was a classic. The simple ideas contained in the article have profound implications once you begin to think of them.

    I am from a non-economics background and making my own small effort to understand these issues, which are unquestionably very important. Some of your articles do a very good job questioning my understanding and long held notions.

    So, although you may be very frustrated with what you see all around, please don’t stop expressing your thoughts lucidly…you can be sure its making many like me think!


  12. Very nicely put. Another way of explaining this objects ideas concept is that talent(ideas) is more important than the tool(objects). We need good governance and for that we need transparency and political accountability. More than the ideas, it is the impelementation that matters- even in business, venture capitalists fund execution(teams), not ideas.

    Important thing is to place the guy with the relevant ideas in the right profession- Make your passion your profession


  13. Good point.. why don’t you write about Public-Private Partnership too – perhaps u did?

    This public-private partnership is a big hog wash by a incompetent administration. It is largely the work of govt. not private industries to spend their money and time building roads(unless its their core job!). A GE or a Boeing in USA is not expected to spend time building roads, but in India there is sufficient noise about why Infosys or a Wipro and not spending money and time in building road. Infact they are willing to spend too (which they need not – having paid taxes!) – but they know there is no accountability and would not know what happened to their money.


  14. Atanu, do you think there are market-based models for infrastructure development? I would like to suggest that expressways and toll-roads can make sensible investments for private concerns. Look at the great interest stirring up internationally about the business of retailing in India – essentially Walmart vs. Reliance. Big retail needs an excellent transportation network to do good business. Based on that assumption, I would argue that investors pitching in to create roads (and then figuring out how to charge customers using them) should profit well. I don’t have the numbers. But do you think it is an idea worthy of merit. In fact, the government might step in and provide tax incentives and write-offs to these concerns who would essentially be doing the government’s job.

    That said, I don’t see the point of a Wipro or a Infosys ‘stepping in’ and building roads as charity.

    The best example of nationwide infrastructure built from private initiative is the american railroad. It made the fortunes of the Vanderbilts and spurred the retail revolution in America. I know about the perils of not adapting ideas to the Indian context, but I am waiting for someone to point out how this parallel is incongruent to the Indian context.


  15. Sandeep,

    The idea of freeway systems, infact even widespread use of cars in Indian cities, is incongruent to the Indian context because Indian cities are very densely populated and there just is n’t enough space. And let us not even talk about pollution. Is it not more important to be able to breath?

    Instead of emulating the American dependence on cars for suburban living, mass transit systems need to be developed and improved in India. For inter-city transporation of consumer goods, India has an excellent rail system that should be further enhanced, instead of trucks and building freeways. It will also move the goods faster and safer.

    Incidentally, India also has the highest accident rate for road travel and AIDS is being spread, far and wide, by the truck drivers.

    Personally, I find the freeways to be an eyesore and noisy and driving, in general, to be very tiring. For example, Shatabdi Express between Delhi and Chandigarh covers the distance in three hours. Try doing that by car without getting tired!


  16. Kishore, you raise some very good points. But here is the reason I think absolute dependence of railroads is a bad idea. Firstly, they are full of delays and unpredictable. There are delays in the Shatabdi Express for instance. Apart from just those delays, there are delays in hauling freight from manufacturer to the train-yard and train-yard to the trains, and the trains to the train-yard and the train-yard to the final destination. Inventorying this stuff is expensive and wasteful. This is reflected in the fact that around 40% of vegetables produced in India go to waste. The same is probably true for other kind of produce too.

    Secondly, railroads are state-run and they bear the concomitant bureaucratic disadvantages of being ridden with graft. Anyone who has tried to ship furniture or even vehicles via the Railways can attest to personal experiences involving bribery.

    I agree that we should not be SUV dependent gas-guzzlers and that there is not much room within cities to add roads.
    I am all for mass-transit within cities. But the issue here is a nationwide road infrastructure. Consequently, intra-city public transportation has little bearing here.

    Finally, the AIDS comment is irrelevant, so I am going to sidestep that. Same thing about pollution — add trees on the sides of highways. Not that moving good around in diesel-run trains is very green.


  17. Sandeep said: “That said, I don’t see the point of a Wipro or a Infosys ‘stepping in’ and building roads as charity.”

    Very well said. There is a increasing noise in Bangalore about if the Infosys or Wipro are earning money – they should be responsible for building roads also ! This is utter crap. Aren’t they paying taxes? Because bureaucrats are sleeping must software industries build roads??

    Completely support the idea of roads being built by private enterprises – as a matter of investment – as their core business !!
    RailRoad was a good example.

    No free lunches. They don’t last or taste bad.


  18. I think Real_World raised a good point about the microcosm that is India. You see for a well meaning person like you and me, it seems foolish for the M-P Expressway not considering proper embankment. But did you think about whether the engineer was mandated to build those roads with specific requirements to build it that way. I used to wonder about the same when we studied physics/maths at our local school in Bokaro. They would teach something but look entirely different in real life. Only learned later that the embankment was opposite to facilitate drainage rather than traffic.


  19. I am intrigued with your notion of “adapt them to my needs”. I think that being able to adapt ideas is a behavioral attribute, that is, not something that someone can necessarily learn. I wonder what would be the criteria be for identifying “Adapters” within an organization. If I were to put a survey together and forward it to an organization’s managers, what questions do you suppose I would ask if I wanted to discover the individuals that are likely to be good adapters of other’s ideas?


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