What is the real difference between India and China?

The difference between the two countries is not the size, the homogeneity of population nor the fact that China began reforms 13 years before India. The difference is not even that China has a large manufacturing base, reasonably good primary education or superb infrastructure. In my view, the nub of the difference is that China gets things done. India, even when there is total consensus, simply does not deliver.

A view of Yamuna Expressway. Photo: HT

In India, road repairs take months, culverts and underpasses take years, and metro systems take decades to build. In Bangalore, where I live, clearing and refurbishing the storm water drainage system put in by the British over a hundred years ago—clogged with 50 years of plastic—has been going on for over five years. It is still not over. This apathetic delivery is agnostic to the party in power. Streets are filthy in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore. They are also filthy in cities situated in states run by today’s heroes—Narendra Modi in Gujarat and Nitish Kumar in Bihar.

In a recent document entitled “The Manufacturing Plan"—written in preparation for the 12th Five-Year Plan—the Planning Commission says “poor implementation is a root cause of India’s poor performance in manufacturing. In China and Japan and Germany—countries that have developed very competitive manufacturing sectors—things get done". There you have it; even the Planning Commission believes it is so.

Even in matters where palms are greased, India suffers in comparison. Chai-Pani is collected from Mexico to Turkey to China. Somehow, it seems, the collectors elsewhere believe they need to deliver. No such responsibility for us here. The honour code, even among our scoundrels, just doesn’t get it done. Perhaps Team Anna’s focus should not have been on a national scold but on a national foreman or a SWAT team.

An implementation deficit is India’s great unifier. Sure I am exaggerating. Delhi has a world-class metro network, which was delivered in a mere 10 years from conception. We now have a brand new elevated Yamuna Expressway that promises to cut the travel time between Greater Noida and Agra to half (the project was over 10 years in the making during Mayawati’s interrupted two terms as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh). Yet, Shanghai’s metro was commissioned about 7 years before Delhi’s and covers approximately triple the total distance (434 Kms) of Delhi’s network. Most other metros in India are off-track or are outrightly derailed. And of roads, the less said the better, because the comparison with China is odious. China adds about a third of India’s installed capacity of power each year. You get the drift.

For things to do get done, it takes a four-pillared framework. Pillar one is transparency. Pillar two: competition/accountability. Pillar three is supervision that includes reward and punishment. And importantly Pillar four, pride. All four need to exist together to get something done at city, state or country scale.

The transparency pillar was identified early. This resulted in the landmark Right to Information (RTI) regulation that had begun to yield some very good results. Alas, like in everything else, the rot has begun to set in even in this area. The RTI process is now largely misused for (very local) real estate related purposes and for getting answer sheets to examination questions. Most activists have been scared off with criminal reactions.

There is no real competition for government implemented projects. Even talent within government does not typically compete to lead these projects. Project leaders are appointed for political affiliation or pliability, not for their execution skills. There is some competition when projects are bid outside. This enforces some input standards and price transparency if done right. But then the third pillar kicks in. Supervision is rank poor. The entire chain of supervision from the field engineer to the chief engineer is under-skilled and these engineers believe they are not sufficiently empowered to enforce technical quality. They therefore convert themselves into gatekeepers whose supervisory approval can be bought rather than won. And pride is absent, except in rare cases. V. Kurien’s Amul and E. Sreedharan’s Delhi Metro are instances of “lead-from-the-front pride" that should serve as examples for others to follow.

In addition to transparency, India needs to take competition and supervision seriously and as integral elements for the delivery of large-scale projects. As for pride, there can be no formula to instill it. It has to come from within.

P.S: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing". Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2, William Shakespeare.

Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

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