The importance of having a good road network for an economy can be hardly overemphasised. And it goes to the credit of the Vajpayee government that it started the National Highway Development Project (nearly 6,000 km) in 1998. But 18 years after that, official statistics reveal that 78% of the country’s highways are one-way or two-way roads and nearly 40% of rural, intra-district and state highways are not metalled. This is unfortunate because the project was started with a lot of flourish and promise, which extended well into the initial years of the Manmohan Singh government. Not having good roads has a negative effect for the economy. First, it hampers the movement of goods and people. Areas that lie outside the pale of a roads network are bound to remain under-developed, perpetuating regional imbalances in the country as well as within regions. Second, in the event of a natural calamity such as floods, roads are better utilised for relief work than dropping food packets and other aid from helicopters or planes. Third, in times of a security crisis such as fighting insurgencies, roads help the security forces to reach the affected areas. So, the consequences of not pushing ahead fast with road construction can be crippling in many respects.
Several components of our road-building activities are faulty. The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) was the first phase of the project and involved upgrading highways that connected the four metros — Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai — in the shape of a diamond. Work on this had been decidedly slow, as seen from the fact that though 97 km of the project remained to be covered in 2009, it was only in 2012 that the government declared the project closed. However, there is every reason to revisit the project again. The second phase of the NHDP is the building of a 7,300-km North-South-East-West (NSEW) corridor, which connects the four corners of the country. The project has missed two deadlines, the first of which was nine years ago, and is still going on. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) should investigate the shortcomings and see whether the model concession agreement, on which much of the highway programme was based, was flawed.
As regards state highways’ non-metalled roads, policymakers who propose that concrete cement roads will fix the problem should reconsider their suggestions. Though a concrete road has a longer lifespan (30 years) as compared to a bitumen road (15 years), concrete is more difficult to repair. On the other hand, damages to a bitumen road can be easily rectified. But for a cement road, the whole stretch has to be redone, which is costly and time-consuming. And sometimes dirt tracks are left as they are because of inadequate funds to repair metalled roads. If the state governments do not adequate funds to build bitumen roads, they can either issue bonds to do so or enter into partnerships with private builders, with the NHAI as the guarantor. We are already on a slippery slope, so things cannot be allowed to slide any further.