Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.
Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1864-1912)
Story goes that there lived a man who was of modest means. He had banana trees in his backyard which provided him with a supply of broad leaves. He would harvest them to use as disposable plates to have his meals on, as is the custom in many coastal regions of India. To save the green leaves for using at a later date, he would carefully choose the yellow decaying leaves to have his dinner on. Forever trying to save the green leaves, he spent his entire life eating on yellow leaves. A foolish prudence, born out of not recognizing that green leaves cannot be saved from turning yellow, resulted in a self-imposed needlessly impoverished life.
Savings are important as a means but not as an end. They have to be invested in endeavors that increase productive capacity so as to increase future stream of goods available for consumption. Of course, lending one’s savings for others to consume or invest in their productive enterprises is not as bad as letting the saving rot in your backyard. But it is best to save and invest those savings in your own home where it will do you the most good, especially if those savings are for projects that have an “inevitability” about them. Indeed, when it comes to “inevitable projects,” it may even be wise to borrow if needed than to put off implementing them with the notion that you would do them tomorrow. There are two reasons: first, putting them off may reduce your present productive capacity and therefore your present income will be lower (and so will the future stream of income.) Second, in the future the cost of implementing the project will be more.
There are many “inevitable projects” that the Indian economy needs. Three critical ones are (1) universal primary literacy and education, (2) solar energy, and (3) an integrated transportation system. They are all critical for number of reasons which I will go into later. For the moment, I will focus on the last because it will illustrate what I mean by “inevitability.” This is a continuation of my piece on the “Intergated Rail Transportation System.”
We cannot get away from confronting these facts. India is a very large country of over a billion people, soon to be the most populous country. India is also extremely poor. When we say poor, we mean that compared to the number of people, the amount of goods and services the people produce is on average very low. We produce too little. Most of what we produce, we have to consume just to keep body and soul together. And in that too we fail miserably evidenced by the fact that half of our children below five are malnourished.
This suggests that we can either increase our production, or reduce our population, or both. Increasing our production implies either using more productive resources, or using our productive resources more efficiently, or both. An efficient transportation system is not an optional item. Without one, the economy cannot achieve productive efficiency.
The transportation system of an economy as geographically large, as densely populated, and as resource constrained as India’s, has to have as its backbone a rail transportation system.
Roads transportation is not an option for India for a number of obvious reasons. Cars and fossil fuels are expensive. Very efficient alternative fuel cars are even more expensive. With 17 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s land area, we cannot afford the luxury of high speed expressways the way that the US can. We have to be more fuel efficient than the US because it is not even theoretically possible to emulate the US with its automobile/airlines system. The US appropriates approximately a quarter of the world’s total energy use with only about five percent of the world’s population. To reach US standards of energy use per capita, India would have to increase its energy consumption 25-fold. (NOTE: all figures in this piece are approximate. The exact figures will not substantially alter the argument.) To put it another way, India would have to use four times the total amount of energy currently consumed by the entire world. At present, India has to import over half of its fossil fuel needs and pays an unaffordable amount for it. India’s economy cannot be sustained on imported fuel. From here flows the case for solar energy, which we will not dwell on right now.
The same argument as above applies with even greater force when air transport is considered as the backbone of an efficient transportation system. Only a very insignificant percentage of Indians can afford to fly. By afford I do not merely mean individual capacity to pay. You cannot have 75,000 daily flights serving Indians, which is what you would need to match the US’s air transportation system.
A bit of arithmetic is all that is needed to expose the underlying reality that we don’t have the option of having road or air as the backbone of India’s transportation system. We not only cannot afford the fuel (source constraint), but we cannot also afford the pollution (sink constraint) of 700 million cars and 20,000 airliners spewing exhaust — as would be required to match the US on a per capita basis.
I should add that I am making a comparison with the US for a very specific reason. It lies at the other extreme end of the spectrum of per capita resource use. We cannot go there even if we wanted to. So all arguments that I have heard about air transportation becoming more affordable in India do not amount to a hill of beans because simple arithmetic puts them out of the running.
India has a rail transportation system. It is the third largest. Or something like that. It is very large. Actually, when you talk about India, you encounter large numbers. By themselves they don’t mean much, of course. You have to put the number in perspective. India is the largest producer of milk, goes the boast. Impressive until you normalize the figure by dividing by the total population. True, India produces 30 times the milk that Denmark produces but then it has 300 times the population of Denmark. True, that India has a large rail network (40,000 miles) but then India has 1,103,048,634 people.
(Aside: If only, lord, if only people will learn how to use normalized numbers instead of raw numbers — it will save us from a lot of foolish bluster.)