The shrill campaign against the National Investment Board (NIB) by environmental groups is built on the same error as the plan to set up the body. The Indian government has never been short of power to execute projects, whatever the scale of the investment. What it has instead often lacked is the sense of authority to execute the projects. When power and authority have combined, the projects have been delivered with aplomb. In each decade since Independence, the central government has delivered some exceptional projects on time, if not within the initial costs.
From the steel cities like Bhilai, Bokaro and Rourkela in the 1950s, the Vizag shipyards of the 1960s, to the Delhi Metro projects now, all were delivered within the mandate under which the current government is running, often with less power. But does that mean the opponents of the NIB are right. No, they aren’t. Government departments today have regressed, with very little ability to either sanction large-scale projects that come from the private sector without being scared that some level of due diligence has got omitted, or even to start a project as a departmental enterprise. When civil society pegs this pusillanimity as a sign of developing consensus, they miss the rationale of the delay altogether. This has to be rectified, but the rectification does not lie in the formation of the NIB.
Architects, in describing the development of pinnacles of achievement, often point out the detritus that is accumulated on the way as signs of earlier misshaped efforts. To compare a government in the same breath may be stretching things a bit, but the analogy holds. New Delhi has often tried initiatives like the NIB in less vocal decades, the most recent being the Cabinet committee on infrastructure. But a more ancient effort was the setting up of the Cabinet committee on economic affairs in the early 1970s. Both were set up to fast-track decisions on economic issues. Later, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government began, and then Manmohan Singh perfected, another mechanism—the group of ministers and its Sanskritised version, the empowered group of ministers. A look at the list shows most of them were meant to handle economic subjects. We also know what happened to most of them.
If these efforts had succeeded, we would not have needed the NIB. This is where the conscientious objectors trip up. A committee, board or group is only as powerful as