October 14, 2009 6:03 pm

Basic services in urban India remain a work in progress

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As delegates of the Commonwealth Games Federation anxiously deliberated New Delhi’s preparations for the 2010 event, a sign outside their conference hall in a half-renovated luxury hotel told them all they needed to know.

“Work in Progress. Inconvenience Regretted” is a phrase so ubiquitous it could almost be the Indian capital’s motto.

The purpose-built administrative centre designed by Edwin Lutyens is again a building site a century on. Flyovers and elevated metro lines end in mid-air, tented encampments of workers line roads, men with batons try to keep the traffic moving and the air is thick with dust. Bangalore, home to India’s IT industry, is the same.

Yet for a country planning to spend $100bn over the next three years on infrastructure, India, with its 1.2bn people, is in the unlikely position of needing not more money but more manpower.

To achieve goals of 9 per cent economic growth and an efficient transport system, Asia’s third-largest economy must produce three times the number of engineering students from its universities. Once they graduate, they then need to be steered into construction and away from better-paid jobs in IT and financial services.

India needs builders, and fast. According to a recent World Bank study, the country faces a shortfall of more than half the skilled human resources needed to modernise the roads, water, power and housing sectors over the next 10 years.

A chronic deficit of civil engineering skills threatens to hamper growth. Part of the problem is that engineers have left for other parts of the economy or abroad. India has about 110,000 highway engineers; China, by comparison, had about five times that number when it set about the task of upgrading its transport system during the 1980s.

Engineering, once one of the most prestigious careers in India, has lost ground to computer science. India has developed its reputation in the virtual world at the cost of the physical. The country has built world-class IT companies such as Infosys and Wipro in the southern state of Karnataka. Yet that same state has disintegrating roads along which laden Tata trucks trundle endlessly nose-to-tail at little more than 25km/h.

Heavily overburdened infrastructure has been starved of investment for decades, and the skills have drained away. Even engineering faculties struggle to find academic staff.

Indian know-how and labour have helped build gleaming cities across the Arabian Sea in Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the past 20 years. Back home, their cities were bereft of urban planning that left thousands without basic services.

The construction industry, for a country of India’s size and ambition, is stunted. There are about 2,000 medium to large construction companies in an industry of 250,000 operators giving employment to 31m people. Many are family owned, lack professionalism and act as cartels – qualities that turn off ambitious young engineers.

Local companies have order books full of work undone; a reflection of lack of capacity rather than healthy demand.

The World Bank study shows that almost all road projects run over their deadline; most overrun their budget by a quarter.

With half the population under 25, India has the people to shape its infrastructure. But it needs to find ways of restoring the eminence of engineering. Otherwise, the words “Work in Progress. Inconvenience Regretted” may test the patience of generations of Indians to come.

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