Kamal Nath discusses India's infrastructure deficit

India's cabinet minister for road transport and highways keeps the audience entertained at Credit Suisse's Asian Investment Conference, but shares few specifics about his investment plans for the sector.

Kamal Nath made the first luncheon address at the 2010 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference to a packed room yesterday. India's cabinet minister for road transport and highways was in fine fettle as he regaled the audience with humorous anecdotes and personal reminiscences. His talk kept the audience engaged, but lacked specifics regarding his plans to meet his infrastructure development targets for India.

In his introduction of Nath, Credit Suisse's chief executive officer for Asia-Pacific, Kai Nargolwala, mentioned that the two are old friends and that Nath's current portfolio [infrastructure] "represents his biggest challenge yet". Nath elaborated on the theme of their association as well, saying in school Nargolwala was always the good student, while he was generally the laggard.

His new role sees Nath regularly attending conferences as he tries to persuade investors to buy into India's infrastructure plans, both literally and figuratively. "At the last three conferences I've attended the two buzzwords were bonuses and emerging markets," he said to a visibly amused audience. "However, the buzzword should be infrastructure." He went on to say that it is no surprise to him that the US stimulus package has an emphasis on infrastructure as this is the need of the hour.

"India is not only the world's largest democracy but also the world's rowdiest, so our solutions have to be India-specific," Nath said, defending the slow pace of change for which India is often criticised. Nath went on to highlight that India did not have a financial crisis. "We felt some stress as an inter-connected but not inter-dependent economy," he emphasised.

"Globally, governments are giving money to their banks to keep them afloat, but in India banks are giving money to the government," he said.

Nath's current preoccupation with improving India's road network was much in evidence as the next part of his speech was focused on roads. "Our 3.4 million kilometres of roads makes us the second largest in the world," said Nath adding that India's rural road connectivity programme has been a success and is something China is now embarking upon. Nath has an ambitious target to build 7000km of roads annually, which translates to 20km daily. To achieve this target India needs to have WIP [work-in-progress] of 20,000km of roads at an estimated outlay of $50 billion.

Nath's optimism that India is equipped with the local talent needed to meet the challenge of building its infrastructure was obvious as he said the current crop of entrepreneurs emerging out of rural India are unknown to Forbes and, indeed, Forbes would not even be able to pronounce their names. However, Nath fully expects to see some of these entrepreneurs grace the cover of Forbes in the next five years.

"For your information, Indian investment in the US over the past two years has created more jobs in America than US investment in India has created," he said to a smattering of applause.

When the floor was thrown open for questions, the audience treated this as an opportunity to garner the specifics Nath had glossed over in his address. Questions ranged from how the road network is proposed to be financed and the problems with land acquisition in India to the potential for partnership between India and China. But Nath was not in the mood to be pinned down and his answers were generally big picture. The session drew to a close with Nargolwala mentioning that Nath was en route to Canada, where, according to media reports, he will attempt to attract more investment into Indian roads.

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