The Golden Quadrilateral has been in the news a lot lately. Much of this is related to the tragic death of Satyendra Dubey, whose trust in the Prime Minister's office ultimately proved fatally misplaced. Sadly, politicians have never bothered with personal responsibility, and independent prosecutions are still many years away. A proper accounting for Dubey's death may never happen, notwithstanding the Julio Ribeiros and the various IIT alumni who're discovering their common interest.
The GQ's problem, however, isn't the corruption or the political protection it enjoys. These things are mere symptoms of its rot. The greater failure is in the road itself - in the idea that expressways across the nation are more than mere transportation routes, but instead the roads to all-round prosperity and economic vitality.
Infrastructure, more than anything else, has become the measure of vitality, and the bigger they come the better. If you'd like to build a three thousand mile motorway or a shipping terminal, the netas will be glad to sweep all obstacles aside, including any questions over whether your plans are really necessary. Such is the faith in the grand design. Much is made of red-tape, but the compulsion and image of grandeur is such that no sooner are such massive works proposed, that they are immediately accepted, and 'single-window processes' follow for quick clearances.
It isn't that improved and effective government clearance processes for large projects are not necessary. They are, but at every scale, not just for the big projects. Second, sometimes these processes hasten the selling off the nation's largest assets - often to a ridiculously low but preferred bidder. This is Enron-itis taken to its natural extreme conclusion - the more it costs, the less scrutiny it attracts.
The needless amounts of negative energy and hassle that local governance throws at citizens is such that it has created a culture of subservience to government, and crony entpreneurism. Neither of these can be an asset to the national developmental agenda. Merely slapping the Golden Quadrilateral on the nation won't do. The challenge of getting the last mile right is one of the greatest in India. For one, New Delhi still commands much of nation's resources, and local government agencies and bodies are often neglected. Equally, the local government electoral processes are yet to break loose from the grips of failed processes that grip regional and national levels.
Despite the grim situation, there has been some good news in the recent past. Some southern states are already taking steps to make local administrations smoother. A few cities are seeing strong private-government engagement on non-profit lines to streamline administration. Karnataka is working on substantial enhancements to service processes at several municipalities aided by a non-profit technology group. Andhra Pradesh is streamlining some services offered at its local governments. Also, several state governments are now hankering for more federalism, in effect demanding more powers and resources at regional levels. The concern that it will tear the fabric that binds the nation may be valid, but would only be significant if New Delhi failed to recognize legitimate demands for more local accountability.
Development is not a national-only and New Delhi-driven process. Its regional tracks were set by the 73rd and 74th amendments to our Constitution. The greatest of our public investments should be made not in grand projects whose usefulness is limited to a small fraction of the population. A lot more people travel the last mile, and it is here that we must turn our attention.