The construction ban is justified

The Nikkei India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index for July was at its lowest in the past eight years and demand took a deep dive owing to GST adjustments. By the deadline of August 25, over 36 lakh businesses had filed their GST returns. The overall impact is indicated to be an upswing of 16.6 per cent on a comprehensive level, though some states would need compensation and others may have a beneficial gain. The disruption of demand has hurt the industry and is not likely to be compensated by the same quantum of the drop.

Demand needs momentum.
The interest relaxation of 25 bps was too meagre, given the low levels of inflation currently. Public spending will need to be kept up to hold the economic growth numbers. Even though Tata Steel and JSW have begun to plan their expansion, none will invest yet. They may be keener in making a pick from the stressed companies sounding their death knells at the altars of the NCLT.

The August 29 mayhem in Mumbai was a repeat of the havoc in 2005. Little has changed in 12 years. Although social media updated everyone earlier on what was to follow and office-goers left offices earlier, as the tracks were flooded, trains stopped, electricity cut off and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link closed, traffic was left in a complete jam.

The usual areas prone to water-logging caused several people to abandon their vehicles and walk home in the filth.

The High Court has banned new construction in Mumbai and an appeal to reverse this in May 2017 was thrown out by the courts. When I raised this issue with the BMC Commissioner at a conference, he had dismissed the suggestion, saying, ‘Stopping construction is not the answer.’ Then, Mr Ajoy Mehta, what is the answer? Is August 29 your answer?

Simply put, enhancing the infrastructure capacity of the city is the answer. So what is the capacity required for a city of our population in terms of storm-water drainage, solid waste management, power, water supply, and so on? Why can’t we have the BMC targeting these numbers for the creation of capacity? These should be linked to TDR charges and capacity creation should lead permissions. In our quest to win better ‘ease of doing business’ rankings, the number of permissions have been brought down – it would now take 60 days instead of over 200 in Mumbai and Delhi to get construction permits. But permissions should be given only after enough capacity is created. Why has the BMC not been able to provide even a dumping ground for construction debris, the original reason for the ban on construction? If construction is allowed to continue without the authorities providing for increase in capacity, we will soon be seeking the ‘right to breathe’ instead of ‘right to privacy’.


Earlier in May, when I had asked Sajjan Jindal, chief of JSW – the group with the best appetite for capital investment – when the private sector would begin investing, he had replied that we were poised for an imminent renewal in sentiment for private investment. Recently, Ajay Piramal, head of Piramal Group and Shriram Group, reflected that a higher GDP number would initiate private investment flow into the economy. And, the World Bank projects that gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), which indicates investment demand in the economy, will grow by 6.8 per cent in FY18 and 8.8 per cent in FY19.

However, the situation appears to be suboptimal currently. According to CMIE, announcements of new industrial and infrastructural projects remained muted in the first quarter of 2017-18. Only 448 projects were announced during the quarter. This is the lowest quarterly project announcement seen since June 2014, the time when the last capex cycle bottomed out. Further, the completion of projects has dipped over previous consecutive quarters. Lower project initiation and a falling commissioning rate will be a double whammy – the only way to change this situation is to enhance the rate of commissioning of the project pipeline and, at the same time, improve the launch of new infrastructure projects. Stalled projects have also not seen any significant resolution. Ideally, the current government is in the best position to resolve and move this rapidly. If the RBI has recognised the need to resolve the mountain of debt through insolvency resolution professionals, why not seek help in resolving stalled projects too?

Foreign funds are keen to invest in toll-operate-transfer (TOT) projects so they can realise the toll yields on completed projects. Hence, NHAI is preparing to offer such completed projects and generate liquidity. Further, the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code will help quicker consolidation as companies find a solution for bailing out. L&T’s results also indicate that larger companies with stronger balance sheets can take on the burden of stressful financial cycles as contracting for infrastructure is essentially becoming a big boys’ game. There is a need for out-of-the-box solutions to resolve the infrastructure growth gridlock.

So, if private investment is yet to make its mark, what is keeping our engines sputtering if not humming? Public spending. Government spending grew by 13 per cent, year-on-year, in the two months April-May 2017 to touch Rs 4.6 lakh crore against Rs 2.9 lakh crore in April-May 2016. Capital expenditure for infrastructure creation and other assets rose 63 per cent in April-May to Rs 54,000 crore from Rs 33,000 crore in the same two months a year ago. With GST affecting working capital cycles, government spending will be needed to keep the economy pumped up.