Atanu Dey On India's Development

The IRTS — Revisited

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1864-1912)

Story goes that there lived a man who was of modest means. He had banana trees in his backyard which provided him with a supply of broad leaves. He would harvest them to use as disposable plates to have his meals on, as is the custom in many coastal regions of India. Attempting to save the green leaves for use at a later date, he would carefully choose the yellow decaying leaves to have his dinner on. Forever trying to save the green leaves, he spent his entire life eating on yellow leaves. A foolish prudence, born out of not recognizing that green leaves cannot be saved from turning yellow, resulted in a self-imposed needlessly impoverished life.

Savings are important as a means but not as an end. They have to be invested in endeavors that increase productive capacity so as to increase future stream of goods available for consumption. Of course, lending one’s savings for others to consume or invest in their productive enterprises is not as bad as letting the saving rot in your backyard. But it is best to save and invest those savings in your own home where it will do you the most good, especially if those savings are for projects that have an “inevitability” about them. Indeed, when it comes to “inevitable projects,” it may even be wise to even borrow if needed than to put off implementing them with the notion that you would do them tomorrow. There are two reasons: first, putting them off may reduce your present productive capacity and therefore your present income will be lower (and so will the future stream of income.) Second, in the future the cost of implementing the project will be higher.

There are many “inevitable projects” that the Indian economy needs. Three critical ones are (1) universal primary literacy and education, (2) solar energy, and (3) an integrated transportation system. They are all critical for number of reasons which I will go into later. For the moment, I will focus on the last because it will illustrate what I mean by “inevitability.” This is a continuation of my piece on the Intergated Rail Transportation System.


We cannot get away from confronting these facts. India is a very large country of over a billion people, soon to be the most populous country. India is also extremely poor. When we say poor, we mean that compared to the number of people, the amount of goods and services the people produce is on average very low. We produce too little. Most of what we produce, we have to consume just to keep body and soul together. And in that too we fail miserably evidenced by the fact that half of our children below five are malnourished.

This suggests that we should either increase our production, or reduce our population, or both. Increasing our production implies either using more productive resources, or using our productive resources more efficiently, or both. To achieve greater production and productive efficiency, an efficient transportation system is not optional but mandatory. Without one, the economy cannot achieve productive efficiency.

The transportation system of an economy as geographically large, as densely populated, and as resource constrained as India’s, has to have as its backbone a rail transportation system.

Roads transportation is not an option for India for a number of obvious reasons. Cars and fossil fuels are expensive. Very efficient alternative fuel cars are even more expensive. With 17 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s land area, we cannot afford the luxury of high speed expressways the way that the US can. We have to be more fuel efficient than the US because it is not even theoretically possible to emulate the US with its automobile/airlines system. The US appropriates approximately a quarter of the world’s total energy use with only about five percent of the world’s population. To reach US standards of energy use per capita, India would have to increase its energy consumption 25-fold. (NOTE: all figures in this piece are approximate. The exact figures will not substantially alter the argument.)

To put it another way, India would have to use four times the total amount of energy currently consumed by the entire world. At present, India has to import over half of its fossil fuel needs and pays an unaffordable amount for it. India’s economy cannot be sustained on imported fuel. From here flows the case for solar energy, which we will not dwell on right now.

The same argument as above applies with even greater force when air transport is considered as the backbone of a national transportation system. Only a very insignificant percentage of Indians can afford to fly. By afford I do not merely mean individual capacity to pay. The system itself cannot accomodate it. You cannot have 75,000 daily flights serving India’s billion people, which is what you would need to match the US’s air transportation system around daily 30,000 flights serving around 0.3 billion Americans.

A bit of arithmetic is all that is needed to expose the underlying reality that we don’t have the option of having road or air as the backbone of India’s transportation system. We not only cannot afford the fuel (source constraint), but we cannot also afford the pollution (sink constraint) of 700 million cars and 20,000 airliners spewing exhaust — as would be required to match the US on a per capita basis.

I should add that I am making a comparison with the US for a very specific reason. It lies at the other extreme end of the spectrum of per capita resource use. We cannot go there even if we wanted to. So all arguments that I have heard about air transportation becoming more affordable in India do not amount to a hill of beans because simple arithmetic puts them out of the running.

India has a rail transportation system. It is the third largest. Or something like that. It is very large. Actually, when you talk about India, you encounter large numbers. By themselves they don’t mean much, of course. You have to put the number in perspective. India is the largest producer of milk, goes the boast. Impressive until you normalize the figure by dividing by the total population. True, India produces 30 times the milk that Denmark produces but then it has 300 times the population of Denmark. True, that India has a large rail network (40,000 miles) but then India has 1,103,048,634 people.

(Aside: If only, lord, if only people will learn how to use normalized numbers instead of raw numbers — it will save us from a lot of foolish bluster.)

India’s rail is not only large but it is also very old. It creaks along at an impressive 25 kms an hour on average. About the same speed as an average cyclist on a level road. (I have seen estimates that put the average Indian road speeds to be about 12 kms an hour.) Not just creaks along but the trains are bursting at the seams. And I am not talking of the Mumbai locals, impressive though they are in their own right as the silent killing machines.

India has to have a modern rail network which will move people and goods faster and cheaper. Yes, cheaper. The cost of moving from Mumbai to Kolkata is not merely the cost of the ticket. There is the cost of spending the 40 hours on even the fastest train. There is the cost of the heavy cross-subsidy that goods traffic pays for passenger travel. This makes shipping goods by rail artificially more expensive than road transport. This makes shipping goods more expensive and thus we consumers end up paying more. The roads get clogged with trucks and we spend umpteen hours driving short distances. We end up breathing diesel exhaust from these trucks. Well, it is best not to go into too much details about the dysfunctional system — it is too depressing.

Now here come the objections.

This new rail transportation you propose is too expensive. Of course, it is expensive. But compared to what? Reminds me of the line: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The alternative system that we have is really more expensive — it hobbles our economy. We have to upgrade it one day. Doing so now before it is too late is a better strategy.

Douglas Adams’ story “Sifting through the embers” is a cautionary tale that should be understood by all. You will eventually have to pay. It is better to recognize that and pay a bit right now or else you will have to pay a lot more later and you will get a lot less in return when you pay later.

Our people cannot afford it. Not doing something that will have overall beneficial effects just because every one and his brother won’t be able to afford it immediately is flawed socialist thinking. It means that we should we content with a dysfunctional system even though putting a better system in place will make the economy more efficient which will raise our productivity and increase our aggregate production which in turn will increase the incomes of people enough so that they will eventually get out of poverty. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that it is idiotic thinking to not consider the dynamic effects of a change.

It will take too long. Again flawed thinking. Man wanted to learn a foreign language. Teacher says you will have to invest 2 years of your time. Man says, that is too long. So teacher says, “Well, you can put off learning and two years hence, you will still not have learnt the language and it will still take you two more years to learn. It’s your choice.”

As I have argued, it is inevitable. So the sooner we get started, the better off we will be in the present and in the future. Indeed, the future will be much better if we get the thing now, rather than later.

Yabbut what about the poor. I think that the communists should continue to nurse the poor since they derive their living out of sucking the blood of the poor. Not very PC but that is the truth. The reason we have so many poor is because of socialism. But let’s not talk of that evil right now.

The current system does (or does not, depending on your point of view) deliver whatever it can to the poor. The new system does not have to immediately displace the existing rail system. In fact, it will gradually replace the old system. The new system should be built next to the current lines on the same land owned by the railways.


Like the man who eat all his meals on yellow banana leaves, India always uses outdated ancient technology. For once, India should aim to use the best. And using the best — even if initially imported — will help us learn how to make the best. We need to have the humility to say that we need to import stuff that we can’t make today. We need to have the pride which makes us want to take the imported stuff and improve upon it so that others will look to us when it comes to the technology. We need to have the courage to make big plans.

We need to move beyond the myopia of the politicians and the idiocy of the generals wanting to arm themselves with nuclear subs and missiles and the greed of the peddlers weapons of mass destruction.

We need vision more than we need resources.

Next time I will continue on this topic and propose that the free market can deliver what I am talking about and how the transition from a dysfunctional state-owned rail system, we can transit to a truly modern efficient integrated (that is, rail, bus, car, and air) transportation system.

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  • Sunil Laxman

    You’ve managed (in your post) to say most of the things I try to say to friends over dinner conversations, and have failed to! A very well thought out arguement…

  • Pradeep

    Interesting numbers, but message sounds familiar. Q: do we need to 4 lane expressway to delivery chicken on the dinning table, raised 700 miles away? Looking at India’s current state and western issues we need non-traditional approach to the solutions. Why do we have to travel? A selective approach of process + technology can make this redundant.

  • Johnny Bravo

    A well thought of argument. Though air travel is becoming cheaper, with airlines offering tickets for Rs.1 + tax, it still is not cheap enough for the average Indian and surely not cheap to transfer goods.
    The article made me think, once again of how Bangalore (and the rest of India of course, I just speak for the city I know the most) desperately needs a system like this.

  • Jyoti Iyer

    Hi Atanu,

    Great analogy and lucidly put.As the saying goes, “Penny wise, pound foolish”. Being stingy has hindered India’s development. It is time that the policy makers did a proper cost-benefit analysis, without the Left Front’s involvement of course.


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