Home > Opinion > Parable of the sea link

It is commonly believed that the free market divides and politics unites people. A lot of popular culture and civic action is based on this misconception.

Such a neat symmetry between a centrifugal economic process and a centripetal political process is not supported by the facts.

The three weeks since the sea bridge connecting Bandra and Worli in Mumbai was opened for public use are a useful starting point to take a closer look at this misconception.

You only need to drive on the 4.7km sea bridge that has been thrown across a foaming monsoon sea to know that it is an engineering marvel. Hindustan Construction Co., which was the main contractor for the project, has a 23-page document packed with facts on the making of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Most of this document is about engineering details and the challenges faced while building the bridge.

But there is also enough information in this document to show how the bridge is a microcosm of economic cooperation and the international division of labour. The edifice is the joint effort of workers, engineers and firms from different corners of the world.

At least 3,000 people were employed to build the bridge. UltraTech Cement provided the cement while the steel came from Tata Steel, Rashtriya Ispat Nigam and Steel Authority of India. Thousands of tonnes of steel and cement were used. Most of the engineers and workers were Indian and so was the capital invested in the project.

Meanwhile, foreign engineers and technicians came in from diverse countries such as China, Egypt, Canada, Switzerland, Britain, Serbia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. That’s a dozen countries.

A Singapore firm did technical consulting. A Norwegian company supplied micro silica, which is used in construction. The stay cable came from a company in China. An Australian firm supplied the pylons. Drills and cranes were imported from countries such as China, the UK, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Thus, the sea bridge came up through an intricate process of cooperation between companies and experts from India and abroad.

Now, let’s turn to what happened once the bridge was thrown open to the public. At the function to inaugurate the bridge, politicians from the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra decided to use the occasion to score brownie points. Sharad Pawar announced that the bridge should be named after former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, since he was born in Mumbai and was the man who laid the seeds of India’s technological progress. But critics were quick to say that a Pawar humbled in the recent national election did this to impress on Congress president Sonia Gandhi his commitment to the state-level alliance.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link became the Rajiv Gandhi Setu.

Other political parties soon jumped into the fray. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray insisted that the bridge be named after freedom fighter and Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar. Raj Thackeray made it clear that it should be named after one of the leaders of the movement for Maharashtra in the 1950s. The Bharatiya Janata Party threatened to take the matter to court. More such suggestions tumbled out, as well as protests and threats of legal action, as political leaders tried to impress their core support base in the months leading to the state elections later this year.

What the stark contrast between the global cooperation to build the sea link and the divisive politics about its name is the exact opposite of what most Indians unfortunately believe about the economic process and the political process.

In fact, modern public choice theorists have drawn a distinction between two ways people interact: market exchange and political exchange.

“Individuals choose, and as they do so, identifiable economic interest is one of the ‘goods’ that they value positively, whether behaviour takes place in markets or in politics. But markets are institutions of exchange; persons enter markets to exchange one thing for another," said James M. Buchanan in a speech entitled The Constitution of Economic Policy that he gave on winning the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986.

“… The extension of this exchange conceptualization to politics counters the classical prejudice that persons participate in politics through some common search for the good, the true, and the beautiful, with these ideals being defined independently of the values of the participants as these might or might not be expressed by behaviour. Politics, in this vision of political philosophy, is instrumental to the furtherance of these larger goals," Buchanan said.

Now, think of the engineers who worked together to build the bridge and the politicians who fought over its name.

Your comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com

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