The Sardar Sarovar dam was inaugurated this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a full 56 years after Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone in April 1961. That gives us some idea of the glacial pace at which most public projects get built in India. The news from Bihar was even more revealing. A dam across the Ganga that was given the green signal in 1977 was eventually ready to be inaugurated on Wednesday. The only problem is that the wall of one of its canals cracked—leaving Bhagalpur town under water.

There is a lot of talk these days about how India needs to build state capacity if it is to push ahead with rapid economic growth over the next few decades. The delays as well as shoddy work that are the hallmark of our public projects are resonant reminders of poor state capacity. Meanwhile, the new minister of state for human resource development has asked engineering colleges to instruct students about how ancient Indians had the technology to fly or build bridges. What India needs are contemporary capabilities rather than historical nostalgia.