The failure of Narendra Modi’s infrastructure plan reflects the larger failure of the Indian imagination, a mindless enumeration of ideas that have little or no bearing on Indian reality. When much of what is built is a half-baked imitation of disparate items tried and tested elsewhere, it becomes hard to fault Mr. Modi.

If the recent image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi swinging on the jhula with Chinese President Xi Jinping was meant to suggest a technological consensus of two great eastern republics, it was a mistaken metaphor. China’s advances in technology and infrastructure have moved it much beyond Indian reach, leaving Mr. Modi alone on the swing. With no one to push, India flounders.
In fact in the standard parlance of engineering development, the Chinese have even outwitted the West. Earlier, if the country’s geopolitical isolation had made comparisons difficult, the opening up has asserted its preeminent presence in the new world. In allowing the world’s star architects to build and plan the Olympic Games and the commercial structures of Shanghai, the Chinese model is now a diligent and deliberate upscaling of western ideas. In China, roads and railways whisk traffic across thousands of miles on flawless concrete, and its rail system straddles some of the world’s highest passes. Even the Hoover dam is child’s play when compared to the Three Gorges dam. German and French engineers are agog at the sight of such structural bravado; connectivity across the eastern seaboard of China is being studied by western transport planners. At one time, the industrial town was a symbol of 19th century England, the highway of 20th century America; now, the shiny factory assembly line is a picture of the new China. Having outwitted most western engineering inventions, the Chinese have even given everything a hyperbolic edge: the biggest dam, the highest rail line, the tallest single span bridge, the longest highway, the largest port, the greenest city. They have become better Americans than even the Americans.
Right course of action?

But the Chinese technological thrust has always been part of a history of persistence that came from political and economic hardship. A nation whose ethics of work and physical labour were intrinsically linked to political ideology, Chinese success came at a huge cost to personal freedom and a Draconian martial arts-like discipline that has had widespread social and cultural implications. It need hardly be confused with the exercise of a new eastern imagination. Moreover, it would be downright ludicrous to suggest that India attempt anything on that scale.
There are of course serious doubts whether the Chinese model of physical development of city and countryside is in fact the correct course of action for India. Serious differences of perception and interpretation remain. China’s continental size — more than three times our own — and consequently a population density a third of India, makes the applicability of standard urban models a real possibility there. Moreover, Indian cities have large concentrated pockets of marginalised population — a growing number that live off the streets in a hand-to-mouth existence. The real qualities of Indian urbanisation are therefore closer in character to West Africa, where similar migrations from the impoverished countryside make African cities a makeshift melting pot of the dispossessed. Cities like Lagos, Monrovia and Abuja and their ramshackle unmade state are similar to Indian towns like Lucknow, Pune, and Hyderabad — places that seem not to be governed by any overall civic order, but appear as either planning failures, or as temporary encampments. Without any defined sense of public purpose, people jostle, park, sell, eat, sleep, defecate … everything goes on everywhere.
In such a setting, the failure of Mr. Modi’s infrastructure plan reflects the larger failure of the Indian imagination — a desperate and mindless enumeration of ideas that have little or no bearing on Indian reality. When much of what is built is a half-baked imitation of disparate items tried and tested elsewhere, it becomes hard to fault Mr. Modi. So, his own campaign begins as a national sanitation drive. Pride in the belief of big things — like suspension bridges and high speed rail — can come only after a classroom reprimand on cleanliness and littering. Why give people the best highway if they are only going to defecate alongside it?
Endorsing public transport

In providing the right answers to the wrong questions, disappointment multiplies. The failure of the Delhi metro system for instance is not linked to its ability to respond to the city’s growing need, but its expediency as the right means to a wrong end. The city’s capacity to contain its residents in active living and working neighbourhoods is continually thwarted by encouraging them on longer and longer commutes, as the metro does. So much so, that the system itself is reaching breaking point. Though its 12-year operation, the metro has made regular changes to keep pace with demand. Increase in the number of coaches, length of the platforms, frequency of trains, the fight to stay ahead of the numbers is a lifelong struggle. Why then in such a failing scenario, does the government propose more metro systems in other cities: Bengaluru, Chennai, then Jaipur and Bhopal? In the long term, wouldn’t the Modi plan make more sense if it clearly restated the futility of distance travel and countered the excessive mobility that is destroying most cities?
Increasing car population similarly has rendered travel so inefficient, traffic speeds in India are some of the slowest in the world, Mumbai at 9 km per hour, Delhi at 7. Instead of promoting the car industry, with ready licences to set up new plants, the government needs to endorse both public transport and shared private transport. At the same time it should encourage the research and development of Indian solar/electric hybrids for buses and city trams. Brazil’s attempt at a cheap wooden vehicle for rural transport hasn’t met with much success, but in the search for alternatives, there is a sincere attempt to develop an indigenous model.
Imbalance in housing

Of the many other vague infrastructure promises, Mr. Modi’s agenda makes references to every Indian owning his own home by 2020. The history of government promises on home construction is littered with statistical failure and numerous housing programmes that have died while still on paper. In 1990, the National Buildings Organisation stated that the country’s requirement for shelter was two crore units. A decade later, the backlog doubled. Today, the housing demand stands at a whopping 5.5 crore. The dysfunctional imbalance between expectation and provision clearly suggests that a private house on a private piece of land is an impossible anomaly. Given the numbers, is the idea of home ownership itself practical? How can such demands be replaced by other more effective architectural mechanisms that examine urban privacy and community living and create living models?
On the subject of smart cities, the Prime Minister’s ideas arise out of mere information and communication technology, and state no clear guides to urban organisation, no vision on the values of civic life and settlement. The setting up of smart cities, based on the assumption that Indian cities can operate as technological models similar to Berlin and Toronto, is as good as inventing an air-conditioner for Alaska. Redundancy is guaranteed. How do computer-aided living, banking, utility distribution, etc. help a formless city where more than half its citizens are the unregistered dispossessed, without home or long-term employment?
Among the majority of people buoyed by Mr. Modi’s recent victory into an animated optimism, many remain a silent majority. Even if the Prime Minister’s intentions are good, their future action seems to be emerging from misguided sources and inspirations. Certainly, the Chinese experiment has been a resilient retesting of the American technological model, and Mr. Modi’s wholehearted support for it finds many takers among the young in India. But many others oppose its application on the grounds that slower development along traditional lines would perpetuate a more suitable Indian cultural identity and a less degraded environment.
The failure of both these streams of thinking leaves India a residual mess, and in a constant state of war over resources, distribution and implementation. The inability to fully grasp and copy the most rudimentary of time-tested western — now Chinese — models for cities, highways, trains, bridge designs, auto and transport ideas, Bus Rapid Transit Systems (BRT), etc. has left the country’s landscape a time warp of incompetence and despair. Because it stifles innovation, the traditional path on the other hand promises a far slower transition to modernity; in the surge for increasing material demands and a populace screaming for better days ahead, the traditional idea too is unacceptable. The unease with both approaches, must lead to a third, perhaps more innovative local approach, and one that Mr. Modi must first discover by asking the right questions. Otherwise the hope for something new, wholly inventive and wholly Indian will fade altogether from memory.
(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.)