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India is set to unveil an ambitious 1 trillion programme to build 5,795km of national highways in 117 so-called aspirational districts, two officials aware of the matter said.

The road ministry identified 221 projects for expansion, in addition to the 5,566km of highways already being built in these districts, comprising 222 projects at a total cost of 66,000 crore.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) will spend a total of 1.04 trillion on the new highway projects, the officials cited above said on condition of anonymity.

The four-year-old Aspirational Districts Programme aims to quickly transform least-developed districts through the convergence of central and state schemes, the collaboration of central- and state-level officials, and monthly district rankings.

Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha will get the most number of highway projects among the aspirational districts.

Among the laggards are Gujarat, Telangana, Rajasthan and some northeastern states.

According to data from the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH), all aspirational districts are already linked by highways, and the expansion will further boost economic activity in these areas.

About 6,575km of national highways have been constructed in the past five years, connecting aspirational districts. Combined with ongoing and upcoming projects, the total length of the national highway network in these districts would expand to more than 18,000km over the next five years.

Queries emailed to spokespersons for MoRTH and NITI Aayog remained unanswered till press time.

The aspirational districts’ programme, with states as the main drivers, focuses on the strength of each district, identifying low-hanging fruits for immediate improvement and measuring their progress by ranking districts on a monthly basis.

NITI Aayog identified the districts based on their health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development and basic infrastructure, which impact the human development index (HDI).

Experts said connectivity would be a force multiplier for aspirational districts to usher in growth in these areas and the estimated 250 million people living there.

“Connecting these aspirational districts will become a major growth driver. It will help create momentum for these districts because once you improve connectivity, you can take services faster to these areas, such as education, health facilities, construction materials and vice versa," said Vaibhav Dange, an independent infrastructure expert.

The Union budget for 2022-23 has focused on infrastructure development to boost economic growth and generate employment.

The road ministry was allocated 68% more funds totalling 1.99 trillion for 2022-23, compared with 1.18 trillion in the previous year’s budget estimate.

A major portion of the increased budget is earmarked for NHAI, with its allocation seeing a 133% jump from 76,665 crore to 1.34 trillion.

The highway programme, including strengthening connections to aspirational districts, will get a major boost with added funds.

The highways construction target for FY23 has more than doubled to 25,000km, including ongoing projects, from 12,000km in FY22.

This comes against the backdrop of the central government directing NHAI to kaeep borrowings to the minimum over the next three years in an attempt to prevent its debt from reaching unsustainable levels, as reported by Mint earlier.

Since 2014-15, the highway developer’s debt has swelled 14 times from 24,188 crore to 3.44 trillion at the end of January.

The government aims to reduce it by 1 trillion by 2024-25.

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