Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, is a man in a hurry. He is planning to accelerate road construction from the tardy two km a day the Manmohan Singh government managed to a daily 41 km. He promises to extend the National Highway network from 96,000 km to 200,000 km. The expanded network will include 12 more super-roads. However, driving down the highway from Lucknow to Barabanki earlier this week I couldn’t help wondering whether the Prime Minister, who is urging Nitin Gadkari to maintain this frenetic pace, realises that technological advances are all too often one step forward and one step backward or at the very least always create some problems as well as solving others. He should be conscious of this because the very technology he is advancing, modern roads and rapid road transport, have created problems.
Perhaps the most obvious problem is the shocking number of accidents on India’s roads. The Prime Minister did express concern about this in one of his Mann ki Baat radio broadcasts. In 2015 an average of 400 people died every day on the roads. The cost is in no small measure due to the failure of all road transport ministers so far to police highways and thereby enforce safe driving. On the highway to Barabanki, drivers of slow-moving, and often obviously overloaded lorries, think it’s their right to drive in the fast lane. Two-wheelers and tractors think nothing of driving in the wrong direction to avoid the inconvenience of a long detour to cross the highway in the manner prescribed by the law. The failure to police the roads is indicated by the fact that well over half the accidents were caused by exceeding the speed limit.
Pollution is another all too obvious problem road transport produces. A less obvious problem is the loss of the land the roads occupy. In his book India 2050, setting out a roadmap for India to achieve sustainable prosperity, the economist Ram Gopal Agarwala warns that if India follows the high-income countries’ pattern of car ownership, 33% of its arable land will be required to provide space for motor vehicles.
Driving to Barabanki I became aware of the problem of urban sprawl highways create. The city of Lucknow is now sprawling along the highway right up to Barabanki and that’s a distance of 30 km. All along the roadside I saw high-rise apartment blocks either constructed or under construction. There was no sign that they were part of an urban plan. Agarwala has warned that if India follows America’s pattern of urban sprawl and car dependence, by 2015 it will have scores of cities with more than 30 million people, creating a nightmare of traffic congestion, pollution, noise, and other ill effects.
Vast cities and urban sprawl suck the life out of smaller towns and even more so the countryside. When I got beyond Barabanki, I drove off the highway to the village of Saidanpur. There the villagers are doing what the Prime Minister wants them to do -- they are making in India. What’s more, they are doing this in a Gandhian manner. They are hand spinning cotton to hand weave gamchas. But because their village is remote, the weavers are neglected. They have received no help from the government in marketing their products, so they remain in the hands of exploitative middle men. Now an NGO, the Digital Empowerment Foundation, has stepped in to devise a way of marketing the gamchas digitally and to bring the weavers into Digital India. Not only have the weavers received no help from the government to make their work more profitable and productive, the government’s provision of the services the weavers are entitled to has been woefully inadequate. They live and work in cramped mud and brick houses. I would not suggest they would be better off in the ugly small concrete boxes so often provided under the Indira Awas Yojana but I recently saw designs for functional and aesthetically pleasing low-cost housing which could be provided for the weavers.
So while Narendra Modi encourages Nitin Gadkari to cover India with tarmac, he should be aware of the dangers of making India too reliant on automobiles, in particular the dangers of conurbations growing even larger and more unmanageable than Lucknow and many other cities already are. To prevent this cancerous growth, which feeds on the smaller towns and the villages of India, it is essential to encourage an alternative way of living to the automobile-centric life of the high-income countries, which themselves are beginning to realise the errors of their ways.
The views expressed are personal