Aquarter century ago, the first issue of Indian Infrastructure rolled off the press. Looking back, it is hard to recall how different life was in 1998. And, it would have been impossible at that time to have looked forward and accurately imagined what life would be like in 2023.
Since 1998, Indians have lived through a brief war and a long pandemic, and India as a nation has added over 400 million citizens. In 1998, less than 1 per cent of the population had mobile phones and very few (less than 1 million) had access to dial-up internet. Nobody who has ever heard a modem squealing as it tried to “handshake” will ever forget that noise. Both services were prohibitively expensive, and liable to network disruptions. The internet was a monopoly, with services offered only by a PSU. Corporates used faxes to communicate. Two young students at Stanford launched a website called Google in September 1998, and it would take a while for internet surfers to realise that this was a game changer.
When Indians drove out into the countryside in 1998, access-controlled, multi-lane roads did not exist. Most highways were two-lane affairs where you risked death by collision with a bullock cart. There were private airlines operating, but their names are almost forgotten. Indian Airlines and Air India held a near-monopoly. Many Tier I cities weren’t on the aviation map, forget about Tier II! The railway network did not connect to hilly regions such as Jammu & Kashmir, or to the Northeast. It took weeks to transport cargo through rail, road or ports.
There were no credit cards, no UPI, no private banks. Most people didn’t have bank accounts. An astounding 96 per cent of Indians lived on less than $5.5 per day. Only 56 per cent of the population had access to power. Kerosene and coal were common cooking fuels since LPG was hard to come by.
We have obviously come a long way since. Everybody – almost literally everybody – has a cell phone, and most have smartphones and data plans. Grid power is available almost everywhere. Most Indians have access to banking services and digital transactions. Multi-lane highways and expressways link the country. A passenger headed to a Tier II or Tier III town can choose between road, rail and air travel. Almost everybody uses gas as a cooking fuel (as well as for transport).
Dedicated goods corridors and container terminals have significantly reduced transport times for goods. Digitalisation has given ordinary citizens quick access to a whole heap of services, including government services.
Of course, over 80 per cent of Indians still live on less than $5.5 per day. The road and rail networks need further
expansion and renovation to improve both speed and safety. Rural penetration of broadband is still far lower than desirable.
The power sector continues to suffer crippling losses, and so do the airlines. India’s ports are way less efficient than
Colombo’s or Singapore’s. The financial sector is still struggling to finance large projects. We’re a long, long way from
achieving zero carbon emissions.
So there’s plenty of work left to be done. But the progress over the past 25 years gives us cause to hope that India will
continue to go from strength to strength.
Here’s to the next 25 years!