The Indian economy is at a very exciting phase. Rapid urbanisation and industrialisation are resulting in the expansion of existing urban centres and industrial zones and the development of new urban agglomerations and new industrial clusters.

Adoption of technologies such as solar and wind power in a large scale are creating new mega-facilities in hitherto remote locations. E-commerce is touching the lives of consumers in the remotest of villages.

With planned reforms in the agricultural sector that empowers the Indian farmer to directly connect with the market, new agro-production and marketing clusters will emerge. The planned economic corridors criss-crossing the country will lead to new large-scale industrial townships. As policies such as the production liked incentives (PLI) attract FDI, linkages with global-value chains will need to be supported with improved maritime and air connectivity with rest of the world.

It stands to reason that for such an India on the ‘constant move’ the current models of static planning for connectivity infrastructure would be inadequate, and would indeed emerge as a major bottleneck for growth and economic expansion.

Holistic connectivity

What India therefore urgently needs is an institutional mechanism by which holistic connectivity plans can be developed and credibly implemented in time. However, this institutional mechanism would have to be agile and responsive to the multiple demands for connectivity, and have the ability to have regular iterations in the planning process, allowing for flexibility to manage constantly evolving new demands for connectivity.

In other words, the planning model will have to shift from the current top-down and largely framed by the transport line Ministries, i.e., Ministry of Road Transport and Highway (MoRTH), MoR, Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) and Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways (MoPSW), to one that is more bottom-up, with a clear understanding of the alignment of industrial zones, mines, agro-clusters, warehousing clusters, logistics parks, inland terminals and gateway ports. This requires a significant investment in institutional development that can make this new bottom-up approach work.

The first step towards developing robust bottom-up planning and implementation mechanism is having access to the granular details of existing and planned industrial, agricultural, urbanisation related developments. This is easier said than done.

Data collation

This information exists across different departments of the central government, State governments, private sector associations, agriculture association, and local chambers of commerce. Developing the correct methodology to collect, collate, and analyse this information would be critical to successful planning and execution.

Being responsive to these many constantly evolving demands for connectivity would then require assessments as to the best means by which such connectivity can be provided. In some cases, this would mean critically re-assessing the alignment of a national highway under development or a railway line. In others, it would require the development of new connectivity between the location requiring such connectivity and the national trunk transport infrastructure.

Each of such individual location specific cases of demand for connectivity would require proper assessment of different options available, and how best this location can be connected to the rest of the transport network, and across modes. Such assessments require a significant level of technical expertise in transport network operations and modelling and data analytics.

Need for synergy

An effective response to different location specific cases would also need alignment with the respective State governments. Individual States would have their own respective infrastructure development plans focused on connecting their industrial or agricultural hubs with the planned national trunk infrastructure. This means the institution responsible for national master planning will require effective lines of communication with State government agencies on a regular basis.

Given that State governments themselves are large bureaucracies with infrastructure responsibilities spread across departments and agencies, meaningful dialogue between the national level master planning institution and State governments would need to be mediated through a pre-identified single-point of contact in every State government that is empowered to coordinate with other State government agencies and respond to the requests for information or project management emanating from the Centre.

All of this means that this master planning exercise is not just a simple matter of having some form of committee of senior officials of relevant transport ministries who coordinate the mode specific development plans or road, rail, inland water, and ports and shipping infrastructure.

To be truly effective, and responsive to the genuine connectivity needs of all the economic activities powering India’s growth, this institution would have to develop substantive capacities for collecting micro-level data on demand for connectivity from multiple sources and technically analyse this data to ensure maximum impact.

It would also have to have the capacity to coordinate with State governments and private stakeholders to fully appreciate location specific demands. Last but not the least, this institution for master planning needs to be supported by state-level single point of contact for all logistics related issues.

The breadth of vision and ambition of the GATI Shakti initiative, as outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 13 indicates that all of these elements of institutional capabilities are included in the design of this initiative.

This provides hope that a radical change is underway. India will replace decades of top-down planning that characterised the last seven decades after independence and replace this with a truly bottom-up set up where the system would become responsive to the dynamic connectivity needs of the country’s entrepreneurs and citizens. This would be befitting gift for the nation on the 75th anniversary of our independence.

The writer is an independent trade and logistics expert