Highways can be gateways for growth

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s proposal to link 100 district headquarters to the national highways network is a welcome, forward-looking move. Under the Rashtriya Rajmarg Zila Sanjoyokta Pariyojna (RRZSP), the Centre proposes to develop roads in 100 of the 676 district headquarters – covering about 6,600 km – and link them with the national highways. The project is likely to cost Rs 60,000 crore. National highways that carry close to 40 per cent of the total road traffic in the country constitute less than two per cent of the total road net-work of 33 lakh km. Major district roads in the country constitute at least 4.6 lakh km. The proposal to link them to the highways’ network holds promise at least on paper. Implementation is another story.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) under Nitin Gadkari has, during the government’s one year in office, suggested measures largely tailored to futuristic demands. Building new road links to the mainstream network and upgrading existing arterial routes into a first rate, seamless web to meet challenges thrown up by ever burgeoning traffic will be critical over the next couple of decades. The district connectivity, incidentally, comes close on the heels of Bharat Mala, a project to build a 5,500-km road network covering all border states. The National Highways Authority of India is implementing development projects on more than 49,000 km of arterial routes. Of this, work on more than 16,000 km is yet to be awarded. Sluggish planning and bottlenecks in implementation – acquisition of land remains a handicap – have repeatedly hit road infrastructure projects, often leading to unwarranted delays. The road ministry will have its task cut out as it sets out to implement its new set of projects including the district network. The rate of road construction over the past few years reveals that the 20 km per day goal remains largely elusive – on an average, only 12 km of highways were constructed per day in 2014-15. During the year, against the target of constructing 8,500 km of highways, only 4,400 km could be achieved.

The ministry is learnt to have revisited its functioning mechanisms to ensure global quality standards, fast-track award of contracts and settlement of disputes related to acquisition of land. New models of public-private participation could also prove critical in attracting investments. Modest numbers do not seem to have weighed the government down as it pitches for bigger goals – the target for the next two years is pegged at 30 km per day. The ambition, hopefully, is backed with competence.

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