The new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport received its first commercial test flights on 12 February. The airport will be formally inaugurated on 14 March. Travellers who have spent umpteen hours at various airports around India have reason to hope that newer private airports will ease part of their agony.
There are two reasons why the commissioning of the new Hyderabad airport is important. First, India has been in the midst of a splendid investment boom over the past four years. Now, some of the mega projects that led this investment surge are getting ready for public use. National highways have already improved (though work on them was started by the National Democratic Alliance government at the turn of the century). There are signs of port capacity increasing. Power and urban infrastructure continue to be in a state of pathetic disrepair. The less said about the railways, the better. But there is good news in airports: The existing ones at Mumbai and Delhi have been refurbished, while Bangalore will get a new one soon.
Second, the speed at which this airport has come up is noteworthy. The public-private consortium that has the rights to develop and operate the airport was given the project site in June 2004. The project achieved financial closure in August 2005, after which the construction work began. A mere 30 months later, it is ready for commercial flights. Compare this with the long, messy battle over the Bangalore airport. This means that India’s infrastructure build-up is being slowed by policy muddles and meddlesome politicians, rather than by the lack of engineering and project management capabilities.
The lack of quality infrastructure is perhaps the most serious supply-side threat to India’s economic growth. As a proportion of its gross domestic product, China invests more than double of what India does to build roads, ports, power plants and housing. Part of this huge gap could be because of excess investment in China; but there is little doubt that the infrastructure-spending gap will have to be narrowed if current growth is to be sustained. Some of this will have to come from public investment, especially in rural roads and irrigation. But private investment will have to lead in other areas.
In that sense, the new Hyderabad airport has significance far beyond the immediate benefits to India’s road warriors.
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