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The Infrastructure

I simply love infrastructure.  The structures and facilities which people take for granted. And not wondering where the power into your home outlets comes from. The behind the scenes happenings which make cell phones possible. Billions of tons of cargo shipped across the world’s oceans. Millions of people moved across vast distances by trains, buses and planes. Infrastructure has a wide impact on people’s lives and also on the national economies.

Irrigation dams like the Bhakra Nangal or the Hirakud in India, or the Hoover dam in the US. All the cell phone towers we see with the antennas hanging out. All the transformers and power stations we see with myriad lines stretching across the cities as well as the countryside. And wastewater treatment plants or water filtration plants  do not look that appealing, similarly are the water and sewer pipes. Train stations, bus stands, airports, sea ports, rocket launch sites etc.

I tend to visit places like dams and any infrastructure which offers a guided tour. Without these places, life would be very different for us. These form the Lego blocks on which other structures are built and lead to prosperity. Prime Minister Nehru rightly called them as the temples of modern India.

The US developed a lot of infrastructure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Railway lines criss-crossed the entire country during the nineteenth century. Called the Transcontinental railroad. So were the canals dug up to transport barges to carry goods cheaply. Eerie canal in New York being one such waterway. Europeans built the Suez canal linking the Mediterranean sea to the Arabian sea. In the first half  of the twentieth century came the telephone, telegraph and electric lines, massive projects like the Hoover dam etc. US built the Panama canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. In the second half came the Interstate highways and then the internet. All these contributed to the US becoming a superpower.

China did the same thing towards the end of the twentieth century and so far in the twenty-first century. Massive construction has been the hallmark which is lifting China to the status of a superpower. But China has also been taking a lot of debt and at least some of the infrastructure is wasteful.  A rural highway which is very less traveled serves no purpose but capital would have been invested in constructing it. The same capital could have been used for something else. Central planning without much private sector participation leads to such inefficiencies.

American infrastructure has been creaking. Due to lack of investments stemming from distrust of the government. As a result, the US does not lead the world in internet speeds, the airports pale in comparison to the modern airports in Asia, the bridges are not the pride of the world anymore. President Biden wants to invest in infrastructure to create the modern Lego bricks to base the economy on. The political climate may not be conducive to such an initiative. Only time will tell.

Prime Minister Modi is doing a lot better on the infrastructure front. Building newer ports and increasing the capacity of existing ones, adding power generation and transmission capacity, constructing highways and railway lines, building bridges and establishing air connectivity to remote areas of the country, building digital infrastructure, building solar and wind power, are all very impressive. These achievements unfortunately get lost in the din of identity politics. But contribute to the economic development in the long run. In this respect Modi has been different from the dynasty. Identity politics is needed to play to the base, may make people feel good in the short run, but does not do any long term good to the economy. Modi does cater to his base as well as building the country.

Being totally invisible are the modern data centers which contain farms of computers and networking equipment. Lots of stacked up boxes, miles of cables, and tons of cooling equipment to keep the electronics operating at a comfortable temperature. Such buildings usually do not have any indicators that they form the cogwheels of the internet. All the tech giants – Google, Microsoft, IBM, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent all have dozens and dozens of such buildings all over the world.

Being aware of what is not easily visible, paying attention to what goes behind the scenes, is an interesting pastime. And it helps in developing a new respect for all the modern miracles happening all around us.

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Prasad Ganti

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Navneet Bakshi
Navneet Bakshi
10 months ago

When I was in China, I was impressed to see cement concrete roads connecting the villages. For the first time after reading your article I think tha perhaps that was superfluous. Infrastructure is necessary but it should stay just ahead of the times. Overdoing it can be a wasteful investment especially in modern times when technology is changing so fast that what is invented today becomes a useless tomorrow and disposing it off becomes a problem.

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