If Sher Shah Suri were alive today, he would have felt proud to see that the Grand Trunk Road continues to serve three nations—India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—four centuries after its construction. One feels equally proud to read that India’s road network is second only to that of the US. This feeling ends the moment one steps out to find uneven, potholed roads, offering a bumpy ride. The journey often ends on a sad note!
India may have a road network of over 4.7 million km but quality-wise, it is one of the worst. Last year, the World Economic Forum in its report on travel and tourism competitiveness ranked India 27th on the quality of its roads. It has one of the lowest road densities in the world—2.59km per 1,000 people and less than 0.7km of highways per 1,000 people. Indian roads are among the world’s most dangerous to drive.
According to a recent WHO report, in India a person is killed every 3.7 minutes in a road accident and one accident takes places every minute. India has twice the number of accidental deaths compared to the US—18.9 and 10.4 deaths per 1 lakh people respectively. The figure is all the more appalling when it is computed for 1 lakh motor vehicles—134 deaths against 15 in the US. Around 1.5 lakh people die in road accidents every year, compared to 33,000 in the US. Low road density and poor maintenance of roads account for the high accident rate.
The road network, which caters to around 85 per cent of passenger traffic and 60 per cent of freight traffic, is given a step-motherly treatment. Around 50 per cent of the roads are not in good condition. It is not an unknown fact that roads are allowed to wither till they become unfit for use. Local authorities don’t act until political pressure is applied on them. It is cheaper to maintain a road than to reconstruct it again.
The South African National Road Agency Limited has estimated that the repair costs increase up to six times the maintenance costs if a road is neglected for three years and 18 times in five years. It is elementary knowledge that before a road is built, water drains should be built on both sides. This is something which our road builders seldom remember.
Equally disappointing is the recent white paper on the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) released by the ministry concerned. Though it is alleged to have been prepared to show the UPA government in a poor light, there is an element of truth in it. The paper says that over the last decade, the government laid undue stress on awarding new projects without going into technicalities like availability of land, environment clearance and other statutory approvals. A record number of 189 projects in 20 states involving `27,209 crore are mired in controversies and disputes.
A recent CRISIL report says that cost overrun, along with traffic slowdown, questions the viability of these projects. Project returns have dimmed from a projected range of 22-26 per cent to a mere 8-14 per cent. These projects follow the self-financing model by earning revenue through tolls and cess. Even a 1 per cent traffic drop can adversely affect the economic viability of such projects. In other words, the developers will find it difficult to service their loans. Small wonder that these projects fail to impress and find competitive bidders.
The policy paralysis and short-sightedness during the UPA government are clear from the fact that the ministry had to reduce its target for 2013-14 to 5,000km from 9,500km in 2012-13. It’s a different matter that the ministry could not even award projects for 2,000km in 2013-14.
India has around 70,000km of national highways and 1,76,027km of state highways with an average annual traffic growth of 7-10 per cent. Of this, only 2 per cent of the road length is four- or six-lane, 34 per cent two-lane and 64 per cent single lane. The deficiencies in the network cause huge economic loss due to slow transportation, which increases transit and inventory costs. Besides, most of the development in road transport has been concentrated in urban areas.
The rural areas continue to be linked through outdated, potholed roads. Over 30 per cent of agricultural produce gets spoiled due to poor infrastructure. The Rakesh Mohan committee pegged the economic cost of bad roads at `20,000 to `30,000 crore annually. The figure is bound to be more if adjusted for present-day prices.
It is high time the NHAI is restructured by giving it autonomy. This will speed up decision-making. The projects should be awarded only after obtaining all the necessary approvals and clearances. The government should concentrate on project implementation and commencement, rather than mere initiation. The golden quadrilateral of four- to six-lane projects are inadequate considering the growing traffic and increasing population. A high-speed 12-lane shall not only reduce transaction costs but also cater to future passenger and freight traffic.
In India, only 30–40 per cent of the revenue from road transport is ploughed back into road development. In contrast, countries like the US, Switzerland and Japan use the entire revenue for road development. India’s revamped central road fund and state funds have failed to meet the road development needs, as they work without any management board, lack specific governance mechanism and transparency in decision-making. They don’t even publish annual reports. Had the funds functioned properly, infrastructural cost would have reduced greatly.
Border areas—sensitive both in terms of defence and economic activity—are also neglected. Lack of infrastructure implies India isn’t ready even for a low-intensity conflict. Since 9/11, nations like the US and Canada have made huge investments in border roads, which not only yield economic benefits but also enhance security.
While China has established rail and road links to Tibet, Indian infrastructure projects continue to lapse deadlines. India has managed to build only 18 all-weather road projects out of 73 identified in 2006, thanks to the age-old monopoly of the Border Roads Organisation and lack of political will. A number of centrally-sponsored schemes overlap one another. For instance, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and the Biju Setu Yojana are meant for providing all-weather roads in rural areas. Such schemes can be clubbed together and modified to save resources.
The Modi government has set an ambitious target of constructing 8,500km roads for the current financial year. It must not follow the precedent set by the UPA government but take the challenge head on like Sher Shah Suri did.
The author is a company secretary and can be reached at email@example.com