Modi gets hands-on in a bid to slash India's red tape

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally taking on India's notorious red tape to clear tens of billions of dollars worth of stalled public projects.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally taking on India's notorious red tape to clear tens of billions of dollars worth of stalled public projects.PHOTO: AFP

Premier's monthly meetings with top state and federal bureaucrats have revived nearly $84b worth of projects

NEW DELHI • Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally taking on India's notorious red tape to clear tens of billions of dollars worth of stalled public projects, hoping that his hands-on intervention can bend a vast, dysfunctional bureaucracy.

Once a month, Mr Modi holds a meeting with top state and federal bureaucrats to check why projects have not got off the ground. Since March, his intervention has helped revive nearly US$60 billion (S$84 billion) in federal and state projects, according to government data.

Mr Modi has won plaudits for the initiative that has chipped away at a US$150 billion backlog of planned roads, ports, railways, power stations and other projects. But equally, critics say, the fact that he needs to personally intervene shows the level of government inertia in Asia's third-biggest economy.

"It is a systemic problem that the Prime Minister needs to work on," said Mr Arun Maira, a management consultant and member of the previous Congress government.

The previous government set up a Cabinet task force to clear the backlog of projects but failed to make much of an impact because state governments were not involved.

The new initiative, launched by Mr Modi in March and publicised on his personal website and Twitter feed, is called pro-active governance and timely implementation, or Pragati, which means "progress" in the Hindi language.

Federal and state bureaucrats are linked by video to Mr Modi's office for the meeting, usually held on the fourth Wednesday of each month. They are typically from the finance, law, land, environment, transport and energy ministries whose clearances are needed for many projects.

The agenda is set the previous week and usually has about a dozen stalled projects, public grievances and other governance issues.

A senior official who has attended the meeting said when a project comes up for discussion, Mr Modi turns to the representative of the ministry where it is being held up.

He simply asks, "please tell me why it hasn't happened", the official said.

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state, Mr Akhilesh Yadav, a political rival of Mr Modi, wrote to the Prime Minister's office requesting the inclusion of a US$1 billion metro rail project in the state capital at one Pragati meeting.

It got the clearances, including a pledge of federal funding, at the meeting last month.

Still, critics say that while Mr Modi can quickly cut through red tape, his style centralises decision-making and will not be sustainable in a country as large as India.

In the July to September quarter, projects worth 7.6 per cent of India's gross domestic product, or US$152 billion, were stalled, down from a peak of 8.5 per cent in the January to March quarter last year, according to CMIE, a think-tank.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'Modi gets hands-on in a bid to slash India's red tape'. Print Edition | Subscribe