Pipeline or pipe dream? Nirmala Sitharaman's Public-Private Partnership talk in Union Budget 2020-21 needs a big reality check

It has been raining PPP opportunities on a winter morning in New Delhi. If only Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's wishes expressed in her Budget speech for 2020/2021 would come true, India is sitting on a goldmine of investments in the pipeline with the magic abbreviation that officially stands for Public-Private Partnership.

Unofficially, the government says: Bring in all the money you have because we need it, so we can tell the world we are doing big-big things. Critically, it implies that a new-age push to revive growth in India's sagging economy is more-of-the-same in new areas, and real questions loom as to the source of the would-be investments, but more importantly, what the 'public' part of the PPP would be.

When the hype ebbs on the longest Indian budget speech at 160 minutes, questions remain on both quantitative numbers and the administrative detail of the qualitative plans outlined. The hard numbers look difficult as it is, the biggest of them being a 10 percent nominal GDP growth projection. If one is to look at the current retail inflation rate of 7 percent, one is to assume that the inflation would be brought down to 4 percent or thereabouts to match the Economic Survey's projected real GDP growth rate of 6 to 6.5 percent.

From agriculture to artificial intelligence, there is nothing the speech did not touch. But some of the hardest questions that we need to ask would be around the red carpet for PPPs in a range of activities.

Sitharaman unveiled a "viability gap funding" plan for warehouses and a PPP initiative for special freight trains to help farmers. The PPP bandwagon goes on to touch hospitals, medical colleges, 5 new "smart cities" and running more than 100 trains.

Highways and power plants are already running in the PPP model. We have seen hiccups related to coal allocation, spectrum, and land in some cases. The government is itself candid in spelling out a minefield of risks in PPPs. "Careful risk allocation is critical to unlocking the efficiency benefits of private sector involvement and is a key driver of value in a PPP," the official PPP website says.