Monday, August 6, 2012

Poverty of Imagination

On the northern boundary of my hometown, Pune, a river known as Mula, winds its way through a shallow gorge, to the East. Any one, who wants to exit the city in that direction, has to cross this river. British rulers had built at least two bridges over this river. One of the bridges was on the main exit route and was built with a proper height so that city never lost communication with other places, even when the river was in full spate. Another bridge also was built on this river towards west of the main exit bridge. This bridge only catered to few villagers at the most and some military establishments. Considering these facts, the British engineers perhaps to cut costs, decided to build a bridge here of a very low height. The result was that this bridge always got flooded during monsoons and cut off this exit. A plan was mooted to build a new bridge here. The bridge was built and also inaugurated with much fanfare by some state minister, but in a typically bureaucratic fashion, no approach roads were built in time. When the approach roads were completed subsequently and traffic started moving on the new bridge, it was found out that the new bridge was just not wide enough for the heavy traffic which now used this bridge. This led to huge traffic jams and it was felt that the earlier low bridge (when not flooded) was actually somewhat better. No sooner, the new bridge was opened for traffic, need was felt for an even larger and wider bridge.

The electrical power provider for state of Maharashtra in India, is a state monopoly and was earlier known as 'Maharashtra state electricity board.' They had signed a contract with ENRON corp. of USA to build a power plant on west coast of India and agreed to buy all the power produced by this plant at a price which was somewhat higher than the rates prevalent in those times. In retrospection, we can say today that it was a good deal. This plant started producing power and then something went wrong. Some politicians felt that the Government was being taken for a ride by ENRON Corp. ( It was proved later, even though ENRON corporation did lot of criminal things, they had done this deal in a right way.) These complaining politicians managed to set up a review committee formulated under chairmanship of an ex- civil service officer. This committee came out with a most amazing finding. They found ( Only God alone knows how! ) that Maharashtra state has big amount of surplus power and there was no need for ENRON power at all. The plant was closed down and plans for building new power plants were all scrapped. As a result of this action, few years later, we have in Maharashtra state, power outages sometimes extending up to fifteen hours on every single day. The life has become absolutely miserable for the people of this state. It became necessary to salvage the same ENRON plant and commission it again at a considerable cost to the exchequer. How these civil servants and politicians failed to realize, what could be envisaged even by a small child, that the power requirement of a growing economy would just continue to grow, is something one can not comprehend and leads to a firm conviction in which I now believe: We Indians are absolutely poorest in imagination! We are unable to envisage the future properly.

Refurbished ENRON plant now owned by NTPC

These are not isolated cases. An unending list of such projects can be produced. One can not therefore find solace by giving a justification, that such errors of commission and omission have occurred because of the lack of quality and quantity of the cerebral gray matter for some odd state planner or a civil service officer or some state politicians have not been gratified to their own satisfaction.. Problem is much deeper and lies in our psyche.

New Delhi city is famous for its magnificent buildings and munificent parks and boulevards. It attracts tourists from all corners of the world. Unfortunately credit for this does not go to Indian Government or people. New Delhi was built by British and even the architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, was British. The downtown Mumbai, boasts of many quaint and grand buildings, which in my personal opinion, can beat any day, so called famous buildings of Manhattan and London. To take a stroll along the wide boulevards and gardens of Esplanade in Kolkatta is always a memorable experience. The magnificence of Victoria Memorial needs no words. But again all these magnificent structures have been built by the British. We only seem to specialize in devising ways, by which the grandeur and splendor of these buildings can be undermined. Recently I visited one such building in Mumbai. My heart bled to see those wonderful long and well decorated verandas being divided into small pigeon holes with help of horrible looking wooden partitions and the pathetic loose wires and cobwebs hanging from the artfully decorated ceilings.
To my mind, reasons for this lacuna are deep within us. We seem to be incredibly poor in imagining things. We are a very intelligent people. We have super builders, architects and Engineers amongst us. If a plan is given to us, we will execute it superbly. We however fail at the plan making stage itself. When we plan to improve a two lane highway, we think of four or at the most six lane highways. We never think of ten or twelve lane super ways. The result is that by the time the new road is ready, the density of traffic has already increased so much, that the new road can not cope op with it. We never seem to imagine things on a grander scale.

Some of our corporates, seem to be thinking above this imagination poverty line. In 1965, TATA Motors started to build their PUNE factory. The size of the land acquired by them in those days was stupendous. For a decade or so, few lonely buildings stood on this huge tract of land. Many wondered at the wasteful ways of TATA’s. Some one dared to ask the chairman of the company about this huge investment. The reply was “ Do you know what is in our minds ? ” Today, some forty years later, this huge tract of land is full of factory sheds and almost each and every car produced by TATA’s except the little NANO, rolls out of the gates of the once barren landscape. The Refinery planned at Jamnagar by Reliance founder appeared similarly as white elephant. But with the latest petroleum prices, it actually appears a prudent investment and could be considered as another excellent example of such above imagination poverty line planning.

A model of the grand Stupa at Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh 

History tells us that Indian have built many grand structures in the past and we never needed British to do that as they did in Delhi and Mumbai. In first or second century CE, a grand marble Stupa one hundred sixty feet in diameter and ninety five feet in height was built by Indians at Amaravati in present day state of Andhra Pradesh. It was an architectural wonder. In sixtenth century, a mughal emperor built the grandest building of them all, The Taj Mahal. But later something went wrong and we became afraid, even of planning for the future. It is high time that we give this poverty line thinking up and raise ourselves above of this.

If we fail to do that, I am afraid, that the Taj Mahal would remain as the only grand structure, exclusively planned and executed by Indians, everything else would be heavily overcrowded and we would have perennial shortages of everything; from power to drinking water.

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