The Union Budget has rightly emphasised the need for a thrust on infrastructure for growth. Capex has become the new buzz word for Indian Mandarins. The relationship of infrastructure and growth has been over-emphasised.

As East Asian nations have demonstrated, human capital is also very central to the emergence of higher order, skill and education led economies. The opportunity to every youth to develop their fullest human potential is the way to a sustainable, high rates of economic progress and human well-being.

Human development is not a ‘revdi’ or a freebie; it is the crux of well-being. This writer in these columns a few months ago said why even infrastructure projects require a strong community connect. It was argued that timely completion with quality outcomes happens when local community own infrastructure initiatives. While maintaining the thrust on infrastructure, it is important to recognise the following eight key pathways to a good infrastructure thrust.

Eight pathways

Infrastructure Projects must be prioritised on the basis of citizen and market surveys and community participation. While we may have many fancy ideas, but let us not underestimate the power of local wisdom in determining what is the best way forward. If we listen to these citizen voices in time, it improves the planning, alignment and outcome of an infrastructure project.

DPRs must be subject to rigorous technical and feasibility scrutiny at planning stage to prevent padding of costs. IITs/NITs should be partners in this value for money exercise. A specific example from the experience of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), implemented by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), will illustrate the point. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wanted to implement the second phase of road construction for Left Wing Affected (LWA) districts.

First it requested the Public Works Departments of States to prepare the costs. The proposal in 2017-18 was to construct 5,000 kilometres of roads in LWA districts at the cost of ₹11,000 crore.

At that point, MHA transferred the responsibility to the MoRD. After a series of appraisal of DPRs, GIS based assessments, and intensive examination of costs, alignments, specifications and materials by IITs and NITs who are PMGSY State specific technical partners, the 5,000 km roads were completed with ₹6,000-odd crore.

The savings was used to construct another thousands of kilometres of roads in LWA districts. Over-specification often becomes a challenge.

Social infrastructure is as important as physical infrastructure and should always be the top most priority. When we compare school infrastructure of Kendriya and Navodaya Vidyalayas with an average government funded school, there is still a large gap, in spite of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Technical Institutes and Skill Centres are often not as well equipped as the Indo German Tool Rooms or the CIPET skill training Centres. Quality matters in excellence and employability.

Large infrastructure projects with employment and skill opportunities must be done in consultation with Gram Panchayats so that development linkages for the hinterland are well thought through. In Madhya Pradesh Rural Livelihood Mission, a drive for full employability was undertaken. A register of all those wanting jobs/skills was prepared and provided for through job melas and local community led skill programmes, as also long-distance residential skill initiatives that also provided life skills to participants under the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushal Yojana (DDUGKY). The results were encouraging in a large number of villages.

Labour and differential skill needs in these projects should be known to local communities and work in partnership with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) for a full employment linkage with the hinterland. GPs/ULBs must have the total employment picture vis-a- vis the total youth seeking employment. Having the full picture at the level of the local government is critical to a successful and integrated employment and self-employment opportunities for all. It must be monitored at local government level.

Studies on rate of return on investment (RoI) must be carried out on a large scale to understand the true picture of an infrastructure project. RoI of MGNREGS and Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana Gramin (PMAY Gramin) should also be undertaken to see the impact on employment and incomes. MGNREGS is a rural infrastructure programme and not a dole; useful income generating sustainable livelihood assets have been created under it, raising incomes of poor households.

Include infrastructure construction done under so-called revenue budget (MGNREGS, PMAY Gramin, etc) in the infrastructure resources. Reform MGNREGS to focus on infrastructure deficits in poorer regions with challenges of water conservation.

The multiplier impact on employment and jobs should be a very important consideration in infrastructure projects. We must emphasise employment, both direct and indirect, in all infrastructure projects. Urban infrastructure to improve the quality of life of the working class in cities, is important.

Half of India will be in urban areas in another decade. We are least prepared for it. Rurban like planned initiatives to develop small towns and growth points need greater thrust as part of the infrastructure pipeline.

These are suggestions making infrastructure and growth more aligned to human development and well-being, the ultimate test for any initiative. The ultimate test of an intervention is its ability to improve human lives and livelihoods. The inability of Human Development sector Ministries in spending even their limited Budget reflects in the Revised stimates for most schemes. This suggests a broader problem.

The writer is a retired civil servant. Views expressed are personal