Connecting India: A common legacy of both NDA governments

A commitment to a generational transformation of national connectivity across geographies and mode of carriage — road, railway, air, waterways
The recent inauguration of the Purvanchal expressway is one more step in this journey towards greater connectivity (AP) PREMIUM
The recent inauguration of the Purvanchal expressway is one more step in this journey towards greater connectivity (AP)
Updated on Nov 29, 2021 01:18 PM IST
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BySandip Ghose

While there are clear differences in the governance style of the two prime ministers (PMs) from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is one striking similarity between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi: A commitment to a generational transformation of national connectivity across geographies and mode of carriage — road, railway, air, waterways. And, add to that, information technology (IT) infrastructure and digital highways.

Whether roads led to economic progress or it is the other way around can be left for economists to argue. But it cannot be denied that the more economically developed states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana have historically had superior highway networks.

Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral project was a transformative pan-India road network plan. National highways, of course, existed — but they were built on a piecemeal basis, there were acute regional disparities, and they constituted a minor fraction of the entire road network. The Vajpayee government adopted a public private partnership (PPP) model, which led to two significant shifts. One, Indians, for the first time, got used to paying tolls for using highways. Two, states started investing in building highways and expressways using the same model.

It may not be a coincidence that the post-Vajpayee era saw a leap in intrastate road connectivity — especially in Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Nitish Kumar returned fo power for a second time on the back of the highways in 2010. Shivraj Singh Chouhan got a lot of credit for improving the roads in central and western MP and derived electoral benefits from it. Both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav also invested in road construction, though they may not have been able to reap electoral benefits from the investments.

Modi seems to have grasped these factors better than anyone, and is moving towards an integrated approach to connectivity, just as he did for financial inclusion with Jan-Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile (JAM). Unlike JAM, where last-mile connectivity was the primary challenge, in the case of roads, much of the groundwork has been completed over the years. Though we have miles to go, literally, India is close to the tipping point — where the upgradation of national connectivity can yield a disproportionate economic dividend.

Even before the launch of the PM Gati Shakti-National Master Plan for multimodal connectivity, the government had rolled out Sagarmala and Bharatmala, India’s own Belt and Road Project, as it were. This was combined with accelerating border roads and development of the Northeast both for defence preparedness as well as mainstreaming remote regions. Dedicated freight corridors were already on track but the addition of schemes such as Kisan Rail (for transportation of perishable goods towards one nation-one market) added value to the supply chain. UDAN, connecting under-serviced air routes, was conceived as a force multiplier in improving connectivity to Tier 2 and 3 cities. The National Waterways Act of 2016 creating 106 new inland waterways was seen as a potential game-changer

The criticism was on the speed of execution, or the deficit between ambition and action. To be fair, in its first term, the Modi government had multiple hurdles to cross. The principal ones among them were finance — with many private infrastructure players saddled with debts — and issues with land acquisition. Despite that, the government must be credited for systematically stepping up the rate of highway construction between 2015 to 2019. The speed of highway construction by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) increased from 16.6 km in 2015-16 to nearly 30 km per day in 2018-19.

Interestingly, the share of expressways in the highway network has exceeded that of national highways — indicating greater participation by states in augmenting the road infrastructure of the country improving intrastate linkages. The recent inauguration of the Purvanchal expressway is one more step in this journey towards greater connectivity.

Sandip Ghose is a former corporate professional. He is a regular commentator on politics and economy

The views expressed are personal

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Saturday, January 22, 2022