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Role of Physical and Social Infrastructure in Development

Dipok Kumar Barthakur
(Dipok Kumar Barthakur is Vice Chairman, State Innovation
& Transformation Aayog , Government Of Assam)

For decades, poor physical infrastructure has acted as roadblocks hindering the socio-economic development of the Northeast, thus increasing the sense of alienation that has led to other social issues

Development has many facets; it cannot be capsuled into ‘x’ crores of industrial investment or ‘y’ GDP growth. Inclusive growth and development where no one is marginalized, and everyone enjoys at least a minimum living standard, mental and physical, if not optimum standards, is the least a country or a state’s declared objective of development should encompass. We in India, with the current stress on Sustainable Development Goals as part of our Annual Budget and Policy exercise, have underlined this commitment.

Governments across the world have historically laid stress on physical infrastructure as the engine for growth and development — transportation, communication, sewage, water and electric systems are all examples of physical infrastructure. In fact this is true for a business also – bricks and mortar, and the tangible features of a business that we invest in. A simplistic statement of fact which is widely recognized is that the availability of basic infrastructure facilities and services flowing from these are vital for economic development of the country. If well developed, they stimulate economic development, but if inadequate, they prove to be hindrances in the growth process. Adequate availability of power supply would accelerate the pace of production activity; adequate means of transport and communication would facilitate market reach; digital connectivity in today’s world is probably another essential pillar of economic infrastructure; and so on and so forth.
But as they move up the development ladder, countries in the last century, especially, have realized that for sustainable growth and development the creation of social infrastructure is as important.

These are the hard and soft infrastructure like health care, education, social care, arts, culture, and emergency services that are the nuts and bolts that keep the engine of development on its tracks.
Social Infrastructure thus focuses on human resource development, implying the development of skilled personnel as well as healthy and efficient human beings, including institutional infrastructure to support these.

On comparing the level of economic development of India vis.-a-vis developed economies, one important parameter of comparison remains the level of infrastructure status.

A UK Study reported in the British Medical Journal suggests that for every 1 pound invested in community networks and services, 10 pounds were saved in costs on poor health, reduced crime and better employment outcomes, amongst other things.

Accordingly, physical and social infrastructures are complementary to each other; one reinforces the impact of the other.

Universal access to education, health and safe drinking water is a must for any society to progress. But even after decades of government intervention in form of development planning, India still has gaps, not only in physical infrastructure, but also worryingly in creating adequate social infrastructure. Despite various development plans, lack of or inadequate basic infrastructure, both social and physical, continues to remain a major constraint to progress in many parts of our country.

Let me take the example of health. Seventty years after independence we still have unacceptable rates of key health indicators of morbidity and mortality. About 75% of the health infrastructure is concentrated in the urban areas where just 27% of the population lives, indicating a serious problem of regional disparities in the distribution of health infrastructure. Public sector investment in healthcare accounts for less than 1.5% of the GDP in India, among the lowest globally. The government, however, seeks to increase the expenditure to 2.5% of the GDP by 2025. Of late innovation in social infrastructure is seeing a positive trend in India but we still have miles to go.

The direct relationship between sustainable growth and development with both physical and social infrastructure is well documented. Thus, we in government must expedite the development and growth of infrastructural facilities to augment the pace of the economic development of our country.

Assam – and the rest of the Northeast – despite its strategic location, bountiful natural resources, often well-educated and young population, has not seen much sustainable development or economic growth. The Northeast states exhibit some interesting paradoxes: despite high literacy rates in many areas, key health indicators show poor performance. The development push and pull has thrown challenges on how to protect our forest cover, environment, our rich local culture, and our ways of life.

For decades, poor physical infrastructure has acted as roadblocks hindering the socio-economic development of the Northeast, thus increasing the sense of alienation that has led to other social issues. Almost each of our states has entered into this vicious cycle of low development of infrastructure, low economic growth and prosperity, leading to social tensions and, in many cases, adoption of violent extremism by a considerable section of the societies across this region. Just in terms of economics, no doubt, we have a lot of catching up to do if we are to be the focal point of engagement for ACT East or to fulfill our stated aspiration of being the manifest of Astha Lakshmi.

The DONER Ministry and the NEC have been acting as the nodal agencies to deal with matters related to the socio- economic development of this region. NEC recognized five basic deficits in its NER 2020 Document: basic needs deficit, infrastructure deficit, resource deficit, deficit of understanding with the rest of the country, and governance deficit. Recently the focus has been on developing physical infrastructure, be it air connectivity, rail links or 10,500 kms of roads. An express highway project along the Brahmaputra has been announced.

Increasingly education and healthcare spend and social security schemes have been developed.

However, to ensure inclusive development, we need to focus on multidimensional aspects, even more so in this region: (a) availability of physical infrastructure in transport, communication and power, (b) industrial growth and agricultural economy performance, (c) social and institutional infrastructure related to health, education, social security and physical security, (d) finance l – we do not have a good credit-deposit ratio or accessibility to financial institutions and credit in this region as yet, and the cost of supply chain is high, leading to low financial viability of the projects, and (e) human development, employability and services.

India can only develop sustainably and avoid the poverty and underdevelopment cycle if we continue to grow and better our economic growth trajectory. And we in the Northeast cannot be mere onlookers in this story any more. The way our region grows will impact a large part of that growth rate, especially as other regions plateau.

The Department of State Innovation and Transformation Aayog, since coming into existence in later half of 2016, has been attempting to define a development story for Assam that looks at both physical and social infrastructure. Recently we have concluded a conclave on tea industry which brought together a holistic agenda of discussions and ideas from productivity and quality, management issues, supply chain, marketing, labour welfare to tea tourism as an economic activity. However, I am very much conscious that our efforts are just the beginning and we need a much more aggressive and strategic way forward.

About the author

Ankur Kalita