Public works at bullet speed | Sunday Observer

Public works at bullet speed

3 September, 2023

When new trains — say bullet trains that seem to levitate over the tracks and not merely speed away to the ends of the earth — were built, did the idea come from engineers? Did it come from policymakers, with the engineers making good on its architecture subsequently?

Everything that’s amazing in the 21st century including modern digitall technology that makes apps do marvelous work things that would have added to human drudgery years ago, was thought of by people who wanted to come up with new products and processes. But somebody also wanted to mass produce these innovations.

What’s the motivating factor? One could say money. But if it is, it has got to be different in the private sector in contrast to the public sector, right? Policymakers unlike capitalists don’t make money for themselves coming up with projects for bullet trains or exciting trail-blazing enterprises such as the recent Indian moonshot for instance.

Then why do they come up with the ideas? Who usually does? Is it single, lone-wolf,wizard engineers for instance that suggest to the policymakers that certain innovations would be trail blazing? We are said to have had wizards of that sort such as D.J.Wimalasurendra for instance. They were dreamers, and their dreams enriched us mostly because they had the ability to make those dreams reality.

But do public works of outstanding value happen as a result of the dreams of individual visionaries, or do they happen as a result of the voter-imperative, meaning that politicians think of projects because they want to shore up their vote banks?

These are important questions, because modern innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s capitalism someone may say, and if the capital is there, things get done be it in private sector entrepreneurship, or more service-oriented public works. That’s not a persuasive argument, though. Tales are legions of countries that have great bounties in terms of capital due to windfalls from natural resources or some other reason, but have squandered it all on conspicuous consumption, or worse, just frittered away the money doing sweet noting on the long run.

Substantial profits

In Equatorial Guinea, very substantial profits from oil — wealth that would have been the envy of many struggling countries without natural resources — was squandered to a point where there was a virtual breakdown in the vital health and education services. Large public works including massive infrastructure projects that are handed to foreign companies, very often in exchange for generous kickbacks, do not — repeat do not — come in the category of useful innovations.

But where do the useful innovations themselves come from? If a foreign company hired for the job does it, it may be because that the company is from a country that had a history of new project innovation, especially in the private sector.

For example, the massive, iconic Petrona Towers which have come to be the symbolic marker for Malaysia’s success, were built by a Korean company.

So yes of course, wealth does buy useful or eye-catching new innovations, and Malaysia had its own share of oil wealth to buy these modern substitutes for totems.

Easy travel by bullet train, or convenient subway, the stuff that Sri Lankans abroad always are wowed by because we don’t have those conveniences back here, was the result of political policymaking decisions, and these often came as a result of years of hard work, growing economies through exports and diligent investment.

But yet, sometimes the glitz and the convenience of modern day innovations can be awe inspiring, compared to how things were several years ago, for instance. It’s worth asking why did anyone think of making such eye-popping progress in the area of public works — not forgetting that tracks that make bullet trains ‘levitate’ and so on, are all public works.

Most of this progress probably comes incrementally. Countries that had good transport already, say 50 years go, have better and more thoroughly equipped transportation now, with the subway maze “topped up” by bullet train projects in some nations. But in others, the progression was exponential, and modern China is one example.

Where did all this rapid-fire novelty in ‘public works’ in China come from? No doubt it was owed to substantial wealth that was fueled by private sector growth and exports. But once the money came in, it was not squandered.

The wealth was channeled into projects that were thought of by designers who had the correct idea, and engineers who could implement. Somebody or some organisation — be it the Communist party of China or any other that was responsible — thought to themselves, we are going to be second to none. They probably started by asking their engineers and product innovation-teams to go abroad and borrow the ideas, and then build on them, so that what’s good is made even better.

But there was a collective national desire to get there, and there was no squandering of wealth in some type of wasteful lurch, as in Equatorial Guinea for instance. But sometimes, there is no enormous wealth or obvious resource-fueled gains for a nation to embark on projects that add to the quality of life of citizens, such as mass transit enterprises.

In these cases, often it’s the single visionaries that did the job. Such as, say,D.J.Wimalasurendra who was the wizard of hydro-power innovation in developing post-colonial Sri Lanka, or the legendary engineering pioneer E. Sreedharan,who almost entirely on his own conceptualised the Delhi subway system in India.

Creative visionaries

Somebody had to get up one day, and think I’m going to make lives better, whatever it takes, and I’m going to muster the resources that are necessary including the Human Resources.

But these creative visionaries still will not be able to get anything done, if politicians place road blocks or somehow get in the way.

So invariably, more than a few minds have to be lined up towards achieving a single goal for convenient public transportation or infrastructure projects to come up, and in fact serve the interests of the people, as opposed to the interests of some foreign Companies that want to rake in the bucks by offering kickbacks to local panjandrums, petty politicos, and the lot.

How much of vital public works projects got underway as a result of insistent public demand? Though there were never any mass protests or public agitational campaigns for the cause of better public transportation for instance, people probably give their cues in various ways. Some just ‘cast their vote’ by upping and leaving. Yes, they want to go to a better place, where there are bullet trains and subways, because these are conveniences, not mere modern showpieces of economic heft or superpower clout. When enough people leave, maybe those that are left behind get the idea collectively at least through some osmosis-like process of brainstorming in the cloud, maybe, that the country has to play catch up or become a wasteland where all it’s best citizens start leaving and only the dross, pardon me, is left behind.

How public works offering modern conveniences are conceptualised and become reality, therefore is not according to a single rule book or blueprint. Some countries have the wealth and assiduously import the improvements, and some don’t, but yet innovate and more than make do with whatever little they’ve got, while some others squander enormous wealth such as Equatorial Guinea, the bad example. But there are still others, strangely, that have at least halfway decent public works because the corrupt politicians wanted to make a cut.

But for that to happen, economic growth has to be happening simultaneously somewhere in the economy if not in the State controlled sector.

South Korea was one of the most corrupt countries, but it’s Chaebols grew at an amazing gallop.

Did corruption at one stage contribute to the South Korean economy and infrastructure development? Some may even cynically and impishly suggest so. But politicians who are corrupt in an economic vacuum i.e with no private sector growing the economy, will get us to the state of say, stagnant Equatorial Guinea, and nothing more.

If there aren’t at least a small cluster of citizens that get up in the morning and say, we will come up with something new for the people, or at least for the sake of ourselves and our families on this new day, we can’t expect basic trains, leave alone levitating bullet trains.

There are several ways to skin a cat, but for any of these methods to work, there must always be good men standing up, who are willing to be counted.