Anwarul Hoda: Dismantle all obstacles

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India has only two world-class expressways today; it needs many more to spur growth

Anwarul Hoda, former member, Planning Commission

As we move to become the world's manufacturing hub there is urgent need for building world-class infrastructure. The dream can be realised only after processes are significantly reduced and logistics cost cut down.

Goods and parts need to move faster for competitive manufacturing. Given the fact that nearly 60 per cent of our freight is transported by road, we have to have a good network of expressways, which are six to eight laned and access-controlled.

It has been felt that expressways are a must for fast movement of vehicles but somehow out of inertia it has not been done. At present we have just two stretches of a few hundred kilometres that fit the definition of expressways. Compared to this, China has a total expressway length of close to 1,00,000 km. China has built its expressways very fast, doing almost 10,000 km a year. Today, it is one of the biggest manufacturing centres in the world. One of the main reasons for this success has been good roads.

In India, it has been argued that the cost of building expressways is high due to expensive land acquisition. As a result, attempts to take up these projects have unfortunately remained non-starters. In the 11th plan period, there was a proposal to build 15,000 km of expressways and it was decided that 1,000 km would be taken up to start with. But it did not take off. In the subsequent plan too, the proposal was renewed but nothing happened. This has hindered the country from achieving high growth rate.

Instead of building greenfield expressways, we have been making the blunder of improving our existing national highways to four-lane and six-lane. One should just check how much the Delhi-Jaipur highway has cost. The government decided to expand the existing road and for land they had to pay through the nose. It has cost more than a proper greenfield expressway. And in spite of so much delay it has not yet been completed.

After the land bill (the one by UPA) came, there has been big confusion on how to go ahead. But the hurdles need to be urgently removed. It is generally felt that acquiring land is not an issue, but paying compensation for it is. For India to become a developed nation, it has to create internationally-benchmarked highways.

Even on the best national highways in the country like GT Road, one can easily find slow-moving vehicles like tractors waiting on one side to cross to the other. This slows down the main traffic, leading to underutilisation of commercial vehicles. Today, vehicles in India are as good as anywhere else in the world, but they remain underutilised because of slow movement, mostly no more than 20 km per hour. If we want speeds of 100-120 km per hour we must build barricaded highways, free from inhabitations along it.

Like the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ), we should make expressway corridors. It is sad that we have one of the largest road networks in the world comparable with road density in countries like China and Brazil, but we have barely two expressways — Taj Expressway and Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Besides movement of goods, it will also give a major push to tourism. Imagine cities around Delhi connected with world-class expressways. The population around these roads would greatly benefit from spending by tourists.

On the execution side, as a first step to build expressways, we must immediately identify alignments and acquire land. The centre may bring in a legislation for standardisation in terms of technical specifications and design. Both the Centre and states can work together to build the infrastructure.

One good example of how expressways can be successfully built is the Taj Expressway. It has come up without the central government committing any financial support to the state. Now the UP government is planning a similar fenced expressway from Agra to the state capital, Lucknow. This model could be adopted in other places.

There is also the issue of traffic diversions in case an expressway comes up parallel to existing national highways, with the two eating away each other's economics. But it can be addressed by giving the contract for an expressway to the same contractor managing the parallel highway stretch.

Expressways are pivotal to the growth of the economy. It is high time that we build a network such roads for the nation's success.

(As told to Nirbhay Kumar)

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