In theory, creation of road infrastructure should be guided solely by utilitarian drives: if there is sufficient “demand” for roads, then construction should not be a problem. Matters are, however, complicated by the fact that road building takes time, money and effort, and hence, calls for some planning.
What India has witnessed in recent years, however, is the other extreme: a targeted approach that comes close to planning of the kind in vogue decades ago. This is unlikely to be of any use. For many years now, a “target” of paving 20 kilometres per day of national highways has been in news, for the wrong reasons.
As reported in The Indian Express on Monday, that target is off by a large margin. The ministry of road transport and highways issued contracts for 5,083km of national highways last year (or 14km per day) and managed to construct only 1,780km (or 4.9km per day). An unnamed government official was quoted as saying that it would take three years to achieve that target and that a “bankable pipeline of projects” was required to meet that target.
It is true that vast areas of the country continue to remain unlinked due to an absent road network and it is equally true that given a choice between spending on infrastructure and populist projects, politicians are likely to chose the former. What the 20-km-a-day mindset does, however, could be much worse than these problems. The chances that in haste to meet this target, corruption and poorly constructed roads could be the end result are very real. In any case, a national highway is not some patch of asphalt that can be laid and forgotten. The issue of ensuring adequate resources—money mostly—to maintain the highways is critical.
Today, with galloping expenditures across the board—social sector spending being a prime example—money for the upkeep of these highways can only come from levying tolls on them. For that to generate sufficient amounts, an adequate volume of vehicular traffic is necessary. This works well for big, arterial roads, but can hardly work for more remote highways. 20km per day at any cost evades that question to a great extent.
Do daily targets for road building make any sense? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org