Tribute to Vajpayee: How Modi govt can trigger job Tsunami across India with this step
Prime Minister Narendra Modi & Union Minister Nitin Gadkari have accelerated the momentum through the conception and roll-out of 'Bharatmala Pariyojana', involving an outlay of Rs 7 lakh crore.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, our beloved former prime minister, changed the narrative of infrastructure development in India by envisioning a future, which had no correlation to the past and present. He dreamt about a connected and integrated India, while his team of officers detailed and implemented the National Highways Development Programme (NHDP) – 100 times bigger and larger than the annual investments in national highways at that point of time.
It was truly a case of BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), accompanied by meticulous planning and effective execution!
In the second half of the decade of 1990s, the annual plan outlay for national highways by the Ministry of Surface Transport (as it was known then) was all of Rs 500 crore per annum. It was indeed audacious to have then conceived the NHDP of Rs 54,000 crore for the Golden Quadrilateral, North-South and East-West Corridors, covering a total of about 13,000 km of NH.
Leaping into the future: A trillion dollar dream
Prime Minister Narendra Modi & Union Minister Nitin Gadkari have accelerated the momentum through the conception and roll-out of 'Bharatmala Pariyojana', involving an outlay of Rs 7 lakh crore. However, if the nation is to pay homage to the departed soul and continue the legacy of the Visionary, one definitive way would be to expand and upgrade 'Bharatmala Pariyojana', and make it at least 50 times bigger and larger than the current annual investments in the national highways sector.
Today, the combined annual outlays of Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) and National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) aggregate to Rs 1,50,000 crore, in addition to investments being made by the private sector. How inconceivable is it to now plan for a trillion dollar or Rs 7 lakh crore programme?
Just think of the economic, social and political benefits of a trillion dollar programme covering the length & breadth of national highways across 718 districts of the country. On an average, this would tantamount to an investment of about Rs 10,000 crore per district over a ten-year period. Even assuming that 30% of such investments would be towards labour payments (both direct & indirect), it would tantamount to creating almost 6,000 crore man-days of jobs (or say 30 crore man-years of employment, assuming 200 man-days per man-year) over the duration of the programme, assuming average daily wages of Rs 350 per man-day.
Go further and then think of the multiplier effect of such investments. It would spur economic activity in every nook and corner of the country. There would be increased and efficient movement of people and goods with savings in travel time and vehicle operating costs (VOC). It would stimulate the transportation sector, with all the attendant benefits of jobs for drivers, helpers, mechanics and what have you. There would be rest areas, way-side amenities, food courts, shopping malls, et al – creating millions of entrepreneurs and service industry jobs. It would lead to encouraging and providing fillip to local arts and handicrafts, by providing easier access to markets and products. To adapt an old proverb, "If you cannot take Mohammed to the Mountain, then take the Mountain to the Mohammed".
A programme like this would truly help build an India of limitless opportunities, even as it reduces boundaries and distances between people and places. The unintended benefits it would have on improving the law & order situation in the backward states would be game-changer for these states. This is turn would improve the "Ease of doing business" and accelerate the pace and quantum of investments in states like UP & Bihar.
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Equitable expansion of national highways network
Of course, the true genius of Vajpayee lay in conceiving the 'Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana' (PMGSY), along with funding thereof, which is changing the face of rural India – providing all weather roads, where none existed before. It has changed the paradigm of development and has been amongst the biggest factors to improved productivity, market access and enhanced rural incomes.
Thanks to the rapid expansion of PMGSY roads, all efforts of successive governments have still not been able to increase the length of national highways beyond 2% of total road network of the country. The scope and possibility of increasing this percentage of national highways to total road network of the country may therefore be limited, due to continued investments in PMGSY.
At present, India has 1,20,543 km of national highways for an estimated population (2017) of 131.66 crore as in 2017 implying 915 km of NH for every 1 crore population. However, there are huge disparities in the distribution of NH across states. More populous states like UP and Bihar have less than half the national average, when it comes to this ratio of length of NH/State population. For the two most populous states, the ratios are as low as 388 km (8,711 km for 22.46 core population) and 413 km (4,839 km for 11.72 crore population), respectively. Is it any coincidence, that the per capita income in these states is less than half the national per capita income?
The above analysis provides a solid case for reducing regional disparities, and substantially increasing NH lengths in the most populous states of the country like UP & Bihar. As a first step, we should resolve that we shall construct/upgrade/provide at least 1,000 km of NH for every 1 crore population. For states which have lesser population density (e.g. north-eastern states & hilly States), maybe the norms can be relaxed and they can have even 1,500 km of NH for every 1 crore population.
As a first step, we should ensure that every state has at least 1,000 km of NH for every crore of population. This may lead to consequential increase in the length of National Highways from current 1.2 lakh km to say 1.6 lakh km or thereabouts, but that would be most welcome!
Standardising the national highways configuration
More importantly, the time has come to increase the width of all national highways to at least 4-lane national highways, with the roads becoming wider as they approach cities & urban settlements, in a defined time-frame of no more than 10-12 years. We can no longer afford to have single or two-lane national highways. When anyone travels on these national highways, which are the highest category of roads (as per Indian Roads Congress), there must be a sense of pride and safety. There must be minimum level of expectations.
Highway professionals, whether bureaucrats in charge of the programme or technocrats responsible for technical specifications and standards, have found logic in traffic density to vary the width of national highways. The current leadership team, led by union minister Nitin Gadkari, has taken a step in the right direction by its decision to upgrade all NH to at least two-lane with paved shoulder. But that is not enough!
Managers are judged on performance parameters by the adage "Walk the Talk". However, leaders are remembered for what they say, for "The Talk" they do. Their words and talks are what inspire and provide direction. We need to stop thinking about infrastructure development as an economic stimulant or fulfilling an existential requirement. It has to be viewed as an act of nation building. It has to be viewed in the context of our long-term strategy, of our hopes and aspirations for the future of this country. We need to make the country "Future Ready"!
Maybe it is an opportune time for Prime Minister Modi to do the BIG TALK and set a National Vision & Goal - that over the next 10-12 years, or say by 2030 - All national highways would be upgraded to being safe & signal-free four-lane divided highways, with appropriate signages, road markings & road furniture, way-side amenities & rest areas and adequate service roads, as may be necessary.
In case it is decided that a particular stretch does not deserve, or cannot be up-graded to four-lane NH, for whatever reasons, then let there be professional and political courage to de-notify such stretches to being state Roads, or whatever appropriate.
Obviously, being four-lane is minimum criterion, with traffic potential and proximity to human settlements determining the ultimate width. One suggestion is that the NH may be widened to eight-lane highways, with 2/3 lane service roads (in both directions), for the first 25 km around 100 most populous cities of India; reducing to six-lane highways, with 2-lane service roads (in both directions) for next 25 km thereafter. On-going improvement works on Delhi-Meerut NH and Delhi-Panipat NH just illustrate and support this argument.
The government should not stop at this but go further. 'Bharat Mala Pariyojna' has envisaged 24 multi-modal hubs across the country, with ring roads around select cities. With before-time completion of Kundli Manesar Expressway, Delhi would soon have a 270 km ring-road around it. This would, inter alia, ensure that commercial vehicles not destined or originating in Delhi do not choke the city. Ring roads already exist around Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and some other cities. This national programme needs to be expanded to include world-class ring roads around at least the 100 most populous cities of India and all state capitals. We should also make special plans for roads passing through urban area to be equipped with footpaths and cycle tracks.
To make these roads safe and signal-free, it would obviously require larger investments than otherwise planned. It would require extensive construction of flyovers, grade separators, vehicular under passes (VUPs), cattle under passes (CUPs), pedestrian under passes (PUPs) and/or foot over bridges (FOBs), in addition to railway over bridges (ROBs) and road under bridges (RUBs). In any case, it is a requirement when highways pass through sensitive environment areas like wild-life sanctuaries & national parks. I am sure, we can accord similar respect and consideration to our fellow human beings, especially those who live alongside or near these national highways.
Road safety to be the cornerstone
Safety is, of course, much more than just about provision of physical infra-structure and/or addressing black spot issues. It is about the '3 E's of Engineering, Education & Enforcement. Even as our national highways need to be designed and then built to global safety standards, there is an equally urgent (if not more important) need to focus on issue of driving licenses. We have to ensure that nobody, repeat nobody, gets a "driving license to kill". The driving licenses have to be issued only after proper, fool-proof and fail-safe, driving tests – both theory & practical. Any investment made for this purpose would be more than justified. Road safety can also be integrated with skill development programme in terms of training and digitisation.
Best of engineering & education would come to naught, if there is lax compliance. We have to have rigorous enforcement of traffic laws and driving behaviours. The DOs & Dont's are well-established. We have to enforce them consistently and without exception. Technology, including video surveillance cameras, can play a huge role in the matter. Let us remember that safety is non-negotiable. Only option to safety is either fatality or bodily harm.
Standardisation of road configuration
Natural corollary of this programme would be to have uniform and consistent standards & specifications across various categories of roads. To illustrate this point, while all highways must be minimum four-lane highways, all state highways must be at least two-lane with paved shoulders (10.5 metre). Similarly, all major district roads (MDRs) should be minimum two-lane width (7.5 metre) with earthen shoulders, while all other district roads (ODRs) should be of intermediate width (5.5 metre).
The states should be urged to adopt and implement these standards in similar time-frame. This would require another trillion dollars. In other words, the country will witness two trillion dollars of investments in roads & highways alone.
Roads are our ultimate wealth creators
Once we agree on the programme, the funding can always be worked out. Who would have thought that Vajpayee is not just day-dreaming, when he envisaged a highway development programme that was 100 times the then annual outlay of the ministry.
My thoughts would be incomplete without quoting former US President John F Kennedy, who when questioned that US can afford to have good roads because it is a rich country responded:
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"It is not our wealth that built our roads but it is our roads that built our wealth"…
BY: Rohit Modi
(The writer is CEO at Essel Infra and Smart Utilities)
Source: DNA Money