It was almost inevitable that some commentators would describe India’s inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix as an inappropriate event in a country that still qualifies for lower middle-income status. Certainly, it is difficult to ignore the contrast between the unabashed capitalism demonstrated by this 65-year-old tournament and the abysmal human development record of Uttar Pradesh, the state in which the event was hosted. The observation may be valid, but to focus exclusively on this issue is to miss the useful takeaways from an event that has done India’s global reputation no harm.
The biggest message that emerged as race winner Sebastian Vettel flashed past a Chequered Flag waved by Sachin Tendulkar on the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida is the contrast between public sector and private sector execution. Despite dust and stray dogs on the tracks ahead of Race Day – and every new Formula 1 race has faced glitches of some description – the final event went off flawlessly. The smooth execution of a world-class event reportedly watched by 500 million people worldwide couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to the corruption charges and inefficiency that preceded a global event the government anchored just one year ago — the Commonwealth Games (CWG). Its lynchpin Suresh Kalmadi now languishes in jail and New Delhi, its venue, remains strewn with incomplete CWG-related urban work.
Detractors may point out that JPSI Sports, part of the homegrown Jaiprakash Associates group, reaped the benefit of close relations with the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. That certainly enabled it to access more than 800 acres of land for the project – almost the size of the erstwhile Tata Nano plant at Singur – at possibly subsidised rates, plus the benefit of the Yamuna Expressway that was routed to ensure world-class connectivity to the circuit. But it could be argued that the Indian Olympic Association had the benefit of the entire central and state government bandobast behind it — and still managed to make a mess. Some may add that JPSI Sports had the benefit of a global franchise and its attendant infrastructure to back it. But if a contrast between public and private sector organisational abilities needs a homegrown example, contrast the CWG with the Indian Premier League (IPL). Faced with a serious security problem at home, the manner in which then IPL supremo Lalit Modi relocated an entire tournament to another continent was awe-inspiring by any standards.
As with projects like the new Delhi airport, the Buddh International Circuit also highlighted the private sector’s ability to develop world-class infrastructure. In fact, it’s not the contrast between rich and poor that was on display on Sunday but the gap between the appalling state of India’s infrastructure and the facilities available for the Formula 1 race. None of the 19 other countries that host these races have such wide differences between their public services and race-track requirements. If India’s private sector can deliver global-standard roads and infrastructure on commercial terms, why can’t it do so when it comes to executing public projects? The government needs to ask itself that question.