This past February, I visited some outsourcing firms in southern India — Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai.
The food, I have to say, was excellent. As a vegetarian, I have to say that I have never eaten as well as I did during that ten-day trip.
I was shocked, however, by the state of the roads. Even near major airports, roads were in disrepair and there were few signs of ongoing construction — at, least, in the places I’ve visited.
I flew from Shanghai to Chennai and the difference in the roads to these airports was stark. In Shanghai, the highway is wide and straight. Yes, it’s packed full of cars, but for the most part, traffic moves. In Chennai, the road was narrow, full of potholes, and wound through what appeared to be abandoned constructions sites — inadequately fenced — residential areas, and shopping districts.
And don’t get me started on the taxis. Compared to the cabs in Mumbai, the taxis in Shanghai might as well be right out of the Jetsons.
The roads in other cities I visited were no different.
My experiences were not atypical. The problems of India’s transportation network are a major bottleneck for that country’s development. It’s railroads, airports, and highways are full to capacity, and its difficult to get new projects approved.
China’s transportation network, by comparison, is a modern marvel. Keep in mind, I’m comparing it to India and not, say, Germany. But for all its faults, the roads are straight and wide, and there are new plans for road and airport construction in every part of China.
And those plans are backed by political will, financial wherewithal, and by a centralized power structure.
Now, in the long term, India’s decentralized, democratic decision-making system may take the country further. By having to get buy-in from affected constituencies, the country may be able to avoid some of the social problems associated with development.
But that’s not necessarily a guarantee of stability, and there are plenty of other areas of social stress besides highway construction.
In addition, new highways and airports bring new manufacturing plants, new logistics hubs, new retail outlets — in other words, jobs and economic prosperity. And the highways don’t only bring in new jobs, but help employees get to jobs elsewhere in the country. That helps to alleviate a great deal of social discontent.
They certainly alleviate my social discontent.
But, more importantly, it alleviates the discomfort of China’s growing blue-collar working class, the foundation of this fast-growing economy, the basis of a middle class culture.
Chinese regulators should be more careful in ensuring that there is adequate buy-in from everyone affected by a construction project. With cameraphones in the hands of everybody these days, high-profile “nail houses” will only become more common, creating the possibility of embarrassment for local officials, or a focal point for protests. Adequate public comment periods and open information about future transportation planning will help deflate some of the frustrations.
Meanwhile, those of us doing in business in China will be able to benefit from one of the fastest-growing transportation networks on the planet.
Every day, with every new road built, a new land of opportunity opens up.