Indian roads have a long way to go

Tags: Op-ed
Indian roads have a long way to go
LEAP OF FAITH: As the road network contributes about 4 per cent to India’s GDP, improvement in this infrastructure is much needed, which would go a long way in reducing accidents and carbon footprint
Last year, the United Nation’s State of the World Cities Report 2012-13 ranked Delhi, the Indian capital, at 58 and Mumbai, the commercial capital, at 52 out of 95 cities on infrastructure. These rankings were way below Beijing, Shanghai or any other world-class city. Such grades reflect an urgent need to improve India’s poor road infrastructure.

According to history books, India began building roads in the country in 4000 BC (the Indus Valley Civilisation), and had a road network of over 4.32 million kilometres in 2011. This network is now the world’s second largest road network just behind the US. India has 0.66 kilometres of roads per square kilometre of land, which makes the quantitative density of its road network similar to that of the US (0.65). However, because India’s population is so large, India has less than 4 kilometres of road for every 1,000 people, which includes both paved and unpaved roads. This density, not surprisingly, is the smallest in the world. Furthermore, only 54 per cent of the 4.32 million kilometres of road in India constitute paved roads.

What’s more worrisome is the fact that roads in Kolkata and Mumbai constitute only 5 per cent and 11 per cent respectively of total urban land, compared with 20-30 per cent in most American cities. Not only these roads are unsafe for pedestrians to walk, but with rapid urbanisation roads are made to feel narrower even as they are widened due to an influx of vehicles.

According to the World Bank, India in its past did not allocate enough resources to build or maintain its road network. However, this lack of resources has changed since 1995, with major efforts underway at present to modernise the country’s road infrastructure. As of April, India had completed and placed in use over 22,400 kilometres of recently built four- or six-lane highways connecting many of its major manufacturing centres, commercial and cultural centres. For example, the 165 kilometre Yamuna Expressway, India’s longest six-lane highway opened which has reduced the time travel between Agra and Greater Noida from four hours to just over three hours.

The rate of new highway construction across India has accelerated after 1999; however, the progress has not kept pace with societal needs. For example, in 2009, lane capacity was low and only about 16 per cent of India’s roads were four lanes or above. A 2007 study found that the congestion on India’s highways reduced average truck and bus speeds to 30-40 km/h; road maintenance was under-funded, and some 40 per cent of villages in India lacked access to all-weather roads. While the pradhan mantri gram sadak yojana (PMGSY) by 2011 had connected 90 per cent of villages identified in 2005 as without access; still, many remote villages in India are without access to a single lane, paved road.

The extremely low road density of 4 km per 1,000 people has created significant congestion on Indian roads. The slow speeds on existing roads inside big and small cities are not a surprise. One underreported side effect of road congestion is the vehicle fuel efficiency. Because of the congestion, the fuel efficiency of the vehicles in India is very low. This increases the overall fuel consumption per equivalent kilometre travelled, besides resulting in heavy pollution since the engines run very inefficiently at such low speeds. Pollutants from poor road network and resultant poor fuel efficiencies include hydrocarbons, NOx, SOx, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. These gases cause health problems, adverse climate effects and related environmental damage.

Another major problem on Indian roads are vehicle accidents. The World Health Organisation’s compilation of road network safety data for major economies found India to have the highest number of road fatalities in the world, with 105,000 road-accident caused deaths in 2006. However, due to the country’s larger population, the accident and fatality rates are similar to major economies. Over 2004-2007, India had a road fatality rate of 132 deaths per million citizens, compared with 131 deaths per million citizens in the US.

So, what’s the bottom line? Yes, there have been significant improvements in India’s road infrastructure over the past 20 years with the creation of multilane highways. For example, according to DHL, a global logistics company, the average time to truck shipments from New Delhi to Bangalore had dropped in 2008, to about five days. Similarly, in 2010, the average time to complete a road trip from New Delhi to Mumbai, had dropped to about 35 hours. However, a similar journey still takes about half the time in China, and one-third in the European Union countries. As the road network contributes about 4 per cent to India’s GDP, improvement in this infrastructure is much needed. Such improvements, when initiated by central and state governments, would go a long way in reducing vehicle accidents, congestion, and our increasing carbon footprint.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology,

Mandi, India)


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