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No mega rail project for Tamil Nadu

RAILWAY Minister Suresh Prabhu inaugurated a slew of railway projects for the Southern Railway. This included two additional lines, now making it six, on the congested Moore Market - Basin Bridge route. Chennai Central handles 200 trains a day, incoming and outgoing combined, apart from the heavy suburban traffic. Thus, this addition should provide a welcome relief. 

The function was attended by the transport minister of Tamil Nadu, MPs, and other local political leaders. Later, while addressing the CII, Prabhu outlined an impressive Rs. 850,000 crore plan for railway development. Prabhu invited concrete plans for railway development in the state and committed to building a strategic multi-model transport plan for cities.  

For the first time in decades, the Centre has a highly involved chartered accountant as railway minister. For 25 years from 1989, a minor coalition partner held the railway portfolio. They have been concerned mostly with trains originating from and a project or two for ,their states.  Remember Lalu Yadav Prasad and Mamata Banerjee avoiding fiscal corrections in terms of rational freight and fare rates, grievously affecting the financial health of this mega undertaking?

While I was impressed with the efforts taken by Prabhu and his team, I should point to Southern Railway receiving poor allocations in the Railways’ massive development plans. The mega projects in the west and north take a huge chunk of the Rs. 850,000 crore development plan: the high-speed Shinkansen-type train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai involves a cost of Rs 100,000 crore; the elevated suburban rail system for the Central and Western Railways of Mumbai Metro would cost Rs. 55,000 crore; the dedicated freight corridors between Delhi and Mumbai and Delhi and Howrah involve an expenditure of Rs. 100,000 crore.  There is no such mega investment for the south. 

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TN’s all-knowing, autocratic, inaccessible leadership...

The blame for such neglect should fall on the political and business leadership of Tamil Nadu. In the rules by the DMK and the AIADMK, the state suffered:

• Karunanidhi was fairly old when he took charge in 2006 and did not have the energy to deal with emerging issues. Jayalalithaa was all-knowing, autocratic and inaccessible.

• Both parties failed in developing a second-line leadership. Do we recall the model of Kamaraj, throwing up competent, qualified and dedicated leaders like C Subramaniam, R Venkataraman and M Bhaktavatsalam?

• Both parties concentrated on giving out freebies from the state’s revenues and neglected development. The growth recorded by the state was due to its good infrastructure, including three major ports, good-quality road networks, a strong civil service, and a vast pool of educated people. 

• Chief Ministers like Annadurai, MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa rarely travelled abroad and were not too familiar with the spectacular economic transformation brought about by technology; nor did they encourage their cabinet colleagues and civil servants to keep abreast of such developments. 

• Worst of all, through these 50 years, the leadership institutionalised corruption. This has made it easy for neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and even distant Gujarat and Haryana, to attract Tamil Nadu business leaders to set up shop in their states. Cognizant’s Lakshmi Narayanan narrated the remarkable speed with which a project application for Telengana was cleared through e-filing: “when in the traditional routine, a project chief visited Hyderabad for follow-up, the concerned official told him that there was no need for it; when the visitor insisted, the official opened the net, showed him the progress made in respect of the application on the screen, told him that the clearance will be made in two days. And it did!” 

In contrast, in Tamil Nadu, except for a few prestigious multinational companies, clearances for registration, acquisition of land, power, water connection and a host of other permits take time and money. 

The new chief minister K Palanisamy would do well to realise that the long years of garnering votes by charismatic leaders has ended; that the scope of offering freebies is saturated; and that buying votes through cash has lost its shelf life.  From now on, efficient quality governance, transparent and free from corruption alone, will matter. 


Costly confrontation....

Under Jayalalithaa, the state had been on a course of confrontation with the Centre. She developed an instinctive resistance to any and every development scheme of the Centre, eg. the elevated highway project connecting the Chennai and Ennore Ports, the gas pipeline project connecting Kochi with Bengaluru, introduction of GST, the coal bed methane and other hydrocarbon projects...  All these have caused enormous losses in terms of missed opportunities. There are welcome signs that the state is finally changing course. The chief minister would do well to build more cordial relations; neighbour Chandrababu Naidu exemplifies the benefits of such an approach. 


Un-involved business leaders

A large part of the blame  should also be shared by the industry associations, business leaders and think tanks (where are they?). In the meeting with the Railway Minister, the Chairman and Vice Chairman of CII (SR) and Chairman of Tamil Nadu CII were content to buttonhole Prabhu and did not point to the neglect of the state on railway development. 

In matters relating to hard-core economic issues, neither the associations nor the business leaders raised their voice. They should be familiar with the humongous benefits derived by Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi in using natural gas as fuel and feedstock. Gujarat is estimated to account for over 60 per cent of gas consumed by the country to such effect! Large capacity fertiliser plants, power plants, pharma and chemical units, glass and ceramic tiles units, public transportation, piped domestic consumption in Gujarat are all based on gas. 

In 2010, the Parliament announced the construction of the national gas grid, entrusting GAIL the job to connect Dabhol in Maharashtra and Kochi in Kerala to make gas available to Karnataka, Kerala and western parts of Tamil Nadu. Reliance was given the task to lay the pipeline to bring gas from Kakinada to other parts of Tamil Nadu.  The works were to be completed by 2012. Five years later, it is yet to materialise. The industry, which would be a major beneficiary of this rich resource, has been deafeningly silent. 

I look forward to seeing the associations queuing up to invite the new chief minister for their meetings. For a change, they should get over simply offering the CM bouquets and give their views on issues of development that cry for attention. 

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