‘You take the high road and I’ll take the low road’ — lines from a famous song. But for many Indians, especially in rural India, the song could well go, ‘you’ll take the no road’. When it comes to roads, it would appear that we just can’t get it right. Even the prestigious National Highway 8 expressway, which was meant to make the ride into Delhi from satellite towns like Gurgaon smoother and quicker, seems to be in an awful mess with commuters delayed by as much as 40 minutes at the toll gates. And whatever happened to the much-hyped Golden Quadrilateral, the brainchild of the NDA government that was meant to connect several metros? Last heard, the prized project was due for completion, or at least 98 per cent of it, by June 2008. The quadrilateral that was to cost Rs 30,000 crore in 1999 had gone up to Rs 50,000 crore by 2006 and will end up even more expensive when it is finally completed.
In recent times, we have been most exercised about infrastructure but somehow roads seem low on the priority list. This despite the fact that roads hold the key to access to education, healthcare, water, markets and jobs. In many rural areas, people die simply because there are no navigable roads to a healthcare centre. Children, especially the girl child, often cannot go to school because there are no roads to take her there. Farmers have to cart perishable commodities on dirt tracks to markets, the journey taking them many more hours than if there had been a road.
The UPA government seems to have the best of intentions. The Bharat Nirman scheme is meant to focus on rural infrastructure, including roads. In its ambitious plan — 66,800 habitations of more than 1,000 people each are to get an all-weather road. It proposes to construct 1,46,000 km of new rural roads and upgrade and modernise 1,94,000 km of existing rural roads all at the cost of Rs 48,000 crore. Of course, there are plans to ensure that these roads are defect-free for at least five years. This would be something of a miracle, since we are used to seeing roads, even in urban areas, washed away after the first rains. There is no doubt that we need the sort of toll roads that are coming up in metros. But this cannot be to the exclusion of connecting large parts of rural India that are cut off due to the lack of something as basic as a navigable road.