Amitabh Kant: India’s ‘can-do’ man
Amitabh Kant is a man thinking big things about India’s future.
Working from his New Delhi office, tucked away on the third floor of a government-run luxury hotel, he heads what may be the country’s most ambitious ever infrastructure project: building 24 cities from scratch along a 1483-km railway line.
“The vision is to create a manufacturing and trading hub with world class infrastructure,” he told Reuters.
Such an exercise is fiendishly difficult in a country as famous for its bureaucratic red tape, corruption and bloody land acquisition battles as it is for its stellar economic performance over the past decade.
Even building a single highway can drag on for years. Seen from that perspective, 24 cities, complete with new airports, slick highways and gobs of new factories, seems a tall order.
But Kant, an Indian civil servant who joined the service more than thirty years ago, could be a major reason for the project succeeding. A keen golfer who dresses more like a corporate honcho than a bureaucrat, he has a reputation for getting things done and having access to people who matter.
Like Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, a civil engineer who won huge acclaim for building the Delhi metro system on time and on budget, Kant is one of a handful of civil servants whose work has risen to national prominence.
In his previous job, Kant was in charge of the country’s flagship “Incredible India” campaign.
Lifting the country’s tourism sector out of the doldrums after the September 11 attacks, Kant built a brand away from the stereotypes of snake charmers and touts lingering at tourist hotspots to better capture India’s new dynamism.
Dubbed a “masterstroke of international branding” by the editor of the National Geographic Traveler, “Incredible India” has now become a household phrase.
But the challenge at the start of the campaign looked steep. For example, in a book on the campaign, Kant recalls travelling from Delhi to the Buddhist pilgrimage site Bodhgaya.
“The national highway stretch was probably the worst in the world — the entire distance of 96 kilometres was full of large potholes. It has a bone-rattling nightmare — a journey that should have taken an-hour-and-a-half took us almost five hours. No wonder the Japanese and Southeast Asian tourists, who should have flocked to visit the Mecca of Buddhism, had been driven away,” he wrote.
The campaign meant changing some reluctant mindsets, including within India’s bureaucratic machine, about how to give India’s image a facelift. It also meant building infrastructure such as new road and hotels, cleaning up tourist sites and educating India’s notorious rickshaw drivers on the virtues of realistic prices.
It is this dynamism that bodes well for the cities project, which had seemed to flag before Kant came on board in 2009.
The Indian government sees the project as crucial for sustaining the country’s growth momentum by beefing up a manufacturing sector that has lagged far behind an IT and services-led boom.
“He has given it a lot of speed, actually, because there was a period when there was no interest,” said Abhaya Agarwal, Executive Director at Ernst & Young in New Delhi.
For the main story, click here
For a Reuters Insider interview with Kant, click here
For a Reuters Insider package on the project, click here