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The really unacceptable toll

The really unacceptable toll

Author: Nadine Kreisberger
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 23, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/276184.html

Introduction: A project like the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway is bound to have starting trouble. But the controversy must not curtail possibilities vital to India's future

I have been following the saga of the new Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway with a mélange of amusement, bewilderment and more recently, with concern.

While living in Mongolia, I would often go in and out of the country through Beijing. There, every time, I would be flabbergasted by a new highway, some added ring road, or an imposing new concrete high rise. The ride from the airport was always smooth and quick, on a straightforward highway with innumerable cranes as part of the landscape. What a contrast with my first landing in Delhi a couple of years ago, in a dusty chaos of cows, human beings, rickshaws and vehicles. So to say that I was looking forward to the opening of the Delhi-Gurgaon via airport highway is an understatement.

What has grabbed the headlines, though, has been the waiting time at its toll plazas. Its opening could have involved more preparation, but a number of initiatives are now being implemented to solve issues and hopefully things will gradually be streamlined.

How, in any case, could have one expected an instantaneously smooth ride with such a huge influx of commuters (an estimated 1,20,000 vehicles per day), mostly not used to paying toll, and buying electronic tags? I remember from my days in New York the unending wait at the New Jersey turnpike's Holland Tunnel toll, or at the George Washington Bridge - which have similar traffic numbers as the Expressway. At peak time the traffic and wait were often horrendous. Yet, those roads and tolls have been around for so many years. New York and New Jersey commuters have been used to paying fees on the road for decades. Most of them have gradually been converted to tag-holding through a variety of marketing schemes. And, of course, when it comes to respecting lanes and queues, their driving patterns are quite disciplined.

So when I hear some populist demands for canceling the tolling altogether due to the waiting time or other pressures, I worry. I worry because in the end the streamlining will take place and what matters is that now there is a highway, saving time and money to a large number of people. And India needs many more of these. The government cannot afford to build them so it has to rely on public-private partnerships (PPP). But private investors would only join in a climate of comfort, stability and safety.

Everyone knows inadequate infrastructure is the most important bottleneck in ensuring a sustainable and expanded growth rate, and for making it more inclusive. In 1980, India had higher levels of infrastructure stocks than China. Today, to just catch up with China's level of infrastructure per capita, it would have to invest 12.5 per cent of its GDP a year until 2015 whereas it is hardly at the five per cent level. So the government has been actively pushing for PPPs in highways, ports, airports, power, water supply and more. Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia estimates the country needs $500 billion investment in infrastructure, 30 per cent of which should come from the private sector. But despite recent increases, private investment has yet to reach the levels of countries like Brazil, Chile or Malaysia. More transparency, standardised procurement procedures, rigorous project development, avoidance of renegotiation and midway changes, a full and clear support from the government - all these and more are needed to make for successful PPPs. The last thing that needs to happen is a hazardous handling of PPPs that would frighten other local or foreign investors.

And I think of my drive to Beijing again. Reaching the city, I would hit nightmarish traffic that would put the jams of Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore to shame. And I would notice in most areas a soulless ocean of high concrete buildings. The highway from Delhi's airport on the other hand, leads to a place which beyond its infinite chaos has managed to retain its spirit. The Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway will hopefully learn a lesson or two from its bumpy beginnings but it will also be a symbol of this unique blend of technology and a multi-layered identity that India can be.

The writer is a French columnist nadinelas@yahoo.com

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