US President John Kennedy once said: “American roads are good not because America is rich, but America is rich because America has good roads.” It seems Union Minister of Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, Nitin Gadkari has taken this to heart and is pushing to develop a strong network of roads across the country. For, the past couple of years have been very encouraging for the road sector. A record length of about 10,000 km was awarded and about 6,000 km of road stretches were completed in 2015-16. The current construction rate for national highways has gone up to about 22.3 km per day.
But this picture was not so rosy three years before. For, despite having one of the most extensive transport networks in the world, India has, for long, been plagued by very slow and inefficient movement of passenger and freight. The sector is faced with many challenges. The penetration of the transport network in remote areas and difficult terrains is inadequate. Highways are narrow, congested, and poorly maintained, leading to slow movement of traffic, valuable loss of time and a heavy burden of pollution. Accidents are rampant, leading to the loss of nearly 1.5 lakh lives every year.
In the last three years, this scenario witnessed a rapid change. The government has made it a major priority to build a world-class transport infrastructure in the country, that is cost effective, easily accessible to everyone, safe, creates minimum load of pollutants and relies on indigenous inputs to the maximum possible extent. This has involved strengthening the available infrastructure by leveraging world-class technology, building new infrastructure and modernizing the legislative framework to support this work. This has also involved partnering with the private sector and creating and nurturing an enabling environment for such partnership.
National highways constitute just two per cent of the country’s road network but carry 40 per cent of the traffic load. But this government is working hard to augment this infrastructure both in terms of length and quality. Having started with about 96,000 km of national highways in 2014, we now have over 1.5 kms and soon hope to reach 2 lakh kms. The upcoming Bharatmala Programme will link border and international connectivity roads, develop economic corridors, inter corridors and feeder routes, improve connectivity of national corridors, build coastal and port connectivity roads, and greenfield expressways. This means that all areas of the country will have easy access to national highways.
New Road safety is another focus area of the government. It has set a target to reduce the number of fatalities due to road accidents by 50 per cent by 2020. It has also constituted a group of ministers to recommend safety-related measures. Nevertheless, the road sector continues to face some key issues. Land acquisition is still an area of concern for many projects. There is a need for a more effective dispute resolution mechanism, proper project development and preparation, and a more balanced risk allocation. The absence of long-term financing instruments and mismatch in traffic estimates are other major challenges. Estimates indicate that projects spanning 50,000 km and entailing investments of about $250 billion will be developed over the next five to six years. Significant opportunities will be offered to contractors, and equipment and material providers through programmes like Bharat Mala, Char Dham, District Connectivity and Setu Bharatam.
The government’s ambitious Sagarmala project aims to develop port infrastructure along the country’s 7,500 km coastline. The project includes modernisation of our ports and islands, setting up of coastal economic zones, new major ports and fish harbours. It is expected that the total investment in the project will be around Rs 70,000 crore (Rs 700 billion). It is planned to mechanise 17 of our main ports on a mission basis. All this infrastructure projects will create 50 lakh (5 million) jobs. Hence, it can be concluded that the nation is treading the path to prosperity.
By Uday India Bureau