This morning, his Japanese counterparts couldn't have asked for a bigger surprise. They were up at six, drove through a beautiful Lutyens Delhi even as the fog lifted, through the Humayun tomb to arrive at the Delhi Golf Club. Except that until now Amitabh Kant, CEO and MD of Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation (DMICDC), hadn't shared with his friends what they were going to encounter at the end of this early morning drive a game of Tiger Woods, the world's No.1 golfer, in the national capital.
This wasn't the first time Kant has used golf to connect with his clients. "It is about making good friends on the golf course. I play golf both in India and Japan and some of my best friendships with Japanese officials, businessmen and chief executives have been struck on the golf course. The most intricate, the most difficult and the most complex issues can be sorted out on the golf course."
But some challenges lie outside Kant's control and can't be sorted with a round of 18 holes. These are the country's infrastructure bottlenecks hurting development of mega projects, even those where governments may be involved, like DMIC.
"We need to get several critical issues right. Good project development along with all approvals is the key to good project execution. This helps de-risk projects and is a must prior to bidding. Many more infrastructure projects need to be developed and put out in the market place. We also need long tenor lending in place. Several highway projects are held up and we need an expeditious dispute resolution mechanism."
On paper, this public-private partnership of DMIC is developing seven futuristic industrial cities which will address the challenges of industrialisation, urbanisation and creation of job opportunities for a young population.
But how strong is the interest from the private sector? How can corporations be involved and made to believe there is incentive for them too? Kant agrees there is interest but wants to tread carefully. "If we bring in private players too early, these cities will become real estate play. We feel the private sector should be brought in after the essential infrastructure has been created. We are extremely confident, once this is done, there will be an enormous demand."
The execution of the first two cities – Dholera in Gujarat and Shendra in Maharashtra – will be taken up in 2014.
With states involved, there are several challenges as well. The project involves acquiring and pooling of adequate land by the state governments. So their participation, resource contribution and enthusiasm levels are key to the project's success. Then there is also the challenge of operation and maintenance of new infrastructure in new cities. Kant admits some states are ahead of others. "Of course, some are moving at a much faster speed."
Not just his Japanese counterparts, even other bureaucrats and civil service officers play golf with Kant. Having spent time as tourism secretary, he has played at many courses across the country.
"When I was secretary-tourism in Kerala, I had a lovely golf course next to my house – the old Maharaja's Travancore Golf Course. I started playing there and loved the game. I had an outstanding caddie who perfected my swing. From there, I moved to the ministry of tourism, government of India, where we started the promotion of golf tourism as an integral product of 'Incredible India'."
It took a sportsman to lift the game's stature at the government level and Kant pushed for golf among other sports. He believes Tiger's recent visit is like a culmination of all the work done to boost golf. "I was touched and impressed by the hundreds of parents, grandparents carrying their little kids to see Tiger Woods. It goes to show how much interest there really is and that it takes an icon to bring the game big attention."