It is commendable that the Union government has woken up and shortlisted 235 critical road projects under its ‘Gati Shakti’ division for close monitoring and early completion. The Gati Shakti Master Plan, we may recall, was launched last year in October to integrate multi-modal connectivity plans of 16 ministries like Railways, Defence and Shipping to speed up projects and synchronise logistics. Without saying it upfront, the Central government is concerned that important road infrastructure projects have been crawling under the watch of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). Of the 235 road projects faltering, 168 are of the defence ministry.
There are clear indicators of the slowdown. Compared to the oft-repeated target of constructing 12,000 kilometres of roads every year, we have achieved only 3,559 km in the first half of this fiscal up to September. After notching 10,237 km of roads in 2019–20, the lockdown ironically allowed the
construction agencies to achieve a record 13,327 km of highways, built at 37 km per day during 2020–21, the first year of the pandemic. To now achieve 12,000 km per year, 50 km of the road would have to be constructed daily, which seems a near impossibility.
The development of road transportation cannot be underestimated. India has nearly 6.5 million kilometres of roadways—the second highest in the world after the United States. Roads transport 64.5% of all goods in the country, and 90% of India’s passenger traffic uses the road network to commute. As much as 70% of the road network is in rural areas. Roads, therefore, provide crucial infrastructure connecting people and transporting goods, which directly impacts the economy’s growth.
It is no wonder that road construction is high on the government’s priority, with nearly `2 lakh crore allocated to MoRTH in the 2022–23 Union budget. But the problem is not so much the funds as the poor implementation and the lack of monitoring. The need to take the 235 road projects under the Gati Shakti umbrella amply illustrates this. Good monitoring can also prevent the huge leakage of funds, which have become synonymous with PWD-executed road projects. There is also a need to monitor and repair the vast network of roads in rural areas and towns, which are potholed, and an apology for transport avenues. India lives not so much on its highways as along these thin slivers of connectivity.