Homage to Mr Vajpayee: Trillion-dollar National Highways Development Programme

Trillion-dollar National Highways Development Programme

Rohit Modi, CEO, Essel Infraprojects Limited

Mr 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 or 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 1990s, the annual outlay for national highways planned by the Ministry of Surface Transport (as it was known then) was Rs 5 billion per annum. It was indeed audacious to have then conceived the NHDP of Rs 540 billion for the Golden Quadrilateral, and the North-South and East-West corridor, covering a total of about 13,000 km of national highways.


Leaping into the future: A trillion dollar dream

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari have accelerated the momentum through the conception and roll-out of the Bharatmala Pariyojana, involving an outlay of Rs 7 trillion. 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 the 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 the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the National Highways Authority of India aggregate to Rs 1.5 trillion, in addition to investments being made by the private sector. How inconceivable is it to now plan a trillion dollar or a Rs 70 trillion programme?

Just think of the economic, social and political benefits of a trillion-dollar programme covering the length and breadth of national highways across 718 districts of the country. On an average, this would tantamount to an investment of about Rs 100 billion per district over a 10-year period. Even assuming that 30 per cent of such investments would be towards labour payments (both direct and indirect), it would tantamount to creating almost 60 billion man-days of jobs (or say 300 million 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. It would stimulate the transportation sector, with all the attendant benefits of jobs for drivers, helpers, mechanics, among others. There would be rest areas, wayside amenities, food courts, shopping malls, et al., creating millions of entrepreneurs and service industry jobs. It would encourage and provide a fillip to local arts and handicrafts, by providing easier access to markets and products. To adapt an old proverb, “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.”

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 and order situation in the backward states of the country would be a game changer for these states. This, ii turn, would improve the ease of doing business and accelerate the pace and quantum of investments in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Equitable expansion of the national highways network

Of course, the true genius of Mr 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 in improved productivity, market access and enhanced rural incomes.

In fact, thanks to the rapid expansion of PMGSY roads, the length of national highways still remains around 2 per cent of the total road network of the country despite the efforts of successive governments. The scope and possibility of increasing this percentage of national highways in the total road network of the country may, therefore, be limited, due to continued investments in PMGSY.

At present, India has 122,434 km of national highways for an estimated population of 1.31 billion as in 2017 implying approximately 920 km of national highways for every 10 million people. However, there are huge disparities in the distribution of national highways across states. More populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have less than half the national average, when it comes to the ratio of length of national highways/state population. For Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the ratios are as low as 388 km (8,711 km for 224.6 million population) and 413 km (4,839 km for 117.2 million 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 the lengths of national highways in the most populous states of the country like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. As a first step, we should resolve that we shall construct/upgrade/provide at least 1,000 km of national highways for every 10 million population. For the states that have a lower population density (north-eastern states and hilly states), the norms can be relaxed and they can have even 1,500 km of national highways for every 10 million population.

As a first step, we should ensure that every state has at least 1,000 km of national highways for 10 million of population. This may lead to a consequential increase in their length from the current 120,000 km to say 160,000 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 divided four-lane national highway, with the roads becoming wider as they approach cities and urban settlements, in a defined time-frame of no more than 10-12 years. We can no longer afford to have a single or two-lane national highway. When people travel on these highways, which are the highest category of roads (as per the Indian Roads Congress), there must be a sense of pride and safety. There must be a 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 varying the width of national highways according to traffic density. The current leadership team, led by the union minister, Nitin Gadkari, has taken a step in the right direction by its decision to upgrade all national highways to at least two-lane with paved shoulders. 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, 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 and goal that over the next 10-12 years, or say by 2030, all national highways would be upgraded to being safe and signal-free four-lane divided highways, with appropriate signage, road markings and road furniture, wayside amenities and rest areas and adequate service roads, as may be necessary.

In case it is decided that a particular stretch does not deserve to be, or cannot be four-laned 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 the minimum criterion, with traffic potential and proximity to human settlements determining the ultimate width. One suggestion is that the national highway may be widened to eight-lane, with two/ three-lane service roads (in both directions), for the first 25 km in 100 most populous cities of India; reducing to six-lane highways, with two-lane service roads (in both directions) for next 25 km thereafter. Ongoing improvement works on the Delhi-Meerut and Delhi-Panipat national highways just illustrate and support this argument.

The government should not stop at this but go further. The Bharatmala Pariyojana has envisaged 24 multi-modal hubs across the country, with ring roads around select cities. With the early completion of the 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.

To make these roads safe and signal-free would obviously require larger investments than otherwise planned. It would require extensive construction of flyovers, grade separators, vehicular underpasses, cattle underpasses, pedestrian underpasses and/or foot overbridges, in addition to RoBs (railway overbridges) and road under bridges. In any case, these are requirements when highways pass through environment-sensitive areas like wildlife sanctuaries and 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 providing physical infrastructure and/or addressing black spot issues. It is about the three Es of engineering, education and 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 the issue of driving licences. We have to ensure that nobody, repeat nobody, gets a “driving licence to kill”. The driving licences have to be issued only after proper, fool-proof and fail-safe driving tests, both theory and practical. Any investment made for this purpose would be more than justified. Road safety can also be integrated with skill development programmes in terms of training and digitalisation.

The best of engineering and education would come to naught if there is lax compliance. We have to have rigorous enforcement of traffic laws and driving behaviours. The dos and don’ts 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. The only option to safety is either fatality or bodily harm. Who wants it?

Standardisation of road configuration

A natural corollary of this programme would be to have uniform and consistent standards and specifications across various categories of roads. To illustrate this point, while all national highways must be minimum four-lane highways, all state highways must be at least two-lane with paved shoulders (10.5 metres). Similarly, all major district roads should have a minimum two-lane width (7.5 metres) with earthen shoulders, while all other district roads should be of intermediate width (5.5 metres).

The states should be urged to adopt and implement these standards in a similar time-frame. This would require another trillion dollars. In other words, the country will witness two trillion dollars of investments in roads and highways alone.

Trillion-dollar National Highways Development Programme

Once we agree on the programme, the funding can always be found. Who would have thought that Mr 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 responded to the comment that the US could afford to have good roads because it was a rich country, with:

“It is not our wealth that built our roads, but it is our roads that built our wealth.”