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Several newspapers have noted that, as per the monthly report of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation for September 2021, about 438 infrastructure projects, each with an outlay of 150 crore or more, have a total cost over-run of around 4.3 trillion. That is roughly an average of 1,000 crore per project. Even if that is lower by 10%, it would mean saving 43,800 crore, clearly a non-trivial sum.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said that what surprised him in Delhi compared to his stint as chief minister of Gujarat was the extent to which Central ministries operated in silos. The surprise he expressed found an echo in an article that Neelkanth Mishra, my fellow member at the Economic Advisory Committee—Prime Minister, wrote nearly five years ago. In an article on 2 January 2017, he had expressed surprise that the Central Board of Excise and Customs and the Central Board of Direct Taxes had to sign a memorandum of understanding to share data (bit.ly/30XG2z9).

Think of Gati Shakti as the solution to the problem of information-sharing between ministries and government departments at the Centre. It is a software element in the government’s infrastructure projects implementation. It is not an announcement of additional spending. It is about data linkages and ironing out wrinkles in execution by anticipating them and not after they arise. As the concept note frankly states, it is about learning from the past. That is refreshing. To that extent, it is an even more significant development than the announcement of, say, a new infrastructure spending programme.

Whether it is the auctioning of mineral resources through a transparent e-bidding process, the procurement of public goods through the Government e-Marketplace (GeM), or the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, or others, the National Democratic Alliance government since 2014 has prioritized efficiency in government functioning and the delivery of government services to the public. Gati Shakti must be seen as an extension of this approach. The Prime Minister was hence right to characterize it as a “whole of government" approach to infrastructure development.

Gati Shakti should be seen as a cog in India’s wheel of infrastructure creation that is as important the other three: the 10-year infrastructure development programme announced last year, National Monetisation Pipeline and privatization of public sector enterprises. That is why it was important that the sale of Air India was achieved this financial year. It is a significant statement of the Centre’s execution of intent. In launching Gati Shakti, Modi was right to express the hope that it would do to infrastructure development what the JAM trinity of India’s Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile telephony did to the transfer of government benefits to people.

Governments and bureaucracies the world over operate on the basis of information being power, and the more it is hoarded, the greater the power that is accumulated. Therefore, it is not easy to expect voluntary information-sharing. Even that has to become a project in itself, aided by technology. Five years ago, information sharing between the boards in charge of indirect and direct taxes was a ‘breakthrough’. Now, it is routine and the taxpayer base in the country has expanded, consequently. Therefore, a dashboard that allows all government stakeholders to access information pertaining to infrastructure projects so that all aspects of it are completed for it to become operational is a potential game-changer. Given time, it could catalyse behavioural changes in the bureaucracy. That will constitute a big difference to governance.

In his weekly column on the initiative (bit.ly/36Gati), columnist Shankkar Aiyar has called for elements that would facilitate citizen-monitoring and accountability. He is right. Information-sharing between implementation agencies is, no doubt, an important element of accountability. But the availability of information in the hands of the public would take it to another level.

There are two other levels of software upgradation that need to be attained for infrastructure creation to be seamless and faster. One is the extension of the information dashboard to state and local governments. They constitute the important last-mile elements of projects. That will also advance cooperative federalism. It is not easy. We have many states and Union territories. Yet, pilot initiatives with reform-minded states and success stories can inspire and set the tone for others.

The second aspect is the negotiation of contracts with the private sector for the monetization, creation and/or operation of existing assets. In the spirit of the Gati Shakti initiative, these agreements must also learn from mistakes committed in the past. In some respects, the Indian bureaucracy has to raise its game in contract design and negotiation. Simplicity of language and transparency of mutual obligations and expectations will go a long way in avoiding costly renegotiations, needless litigation and costly delays.

In short, Gati Shakti constitutes an important step forward in the efficient creation of infrastructure assets. It is mission advanced, but not yet mission accomplished.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views.

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