Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Take any developed country, they would be having cheap power and excellent road networks, absolutely essential for economic growth and progress. Without taking away credit due to any other Government, the Vajpayee Government’s Golden Quadrilateral highway project had its own positive contribution in the India growth story that was essentially powered by the new economic policies that upturned the permit-quota raj system that existed since Independence.
The UPA Government that followed the Vajpayee Government took the highways project ahead, and had its own formula for growth that helped India leapfrog to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Messrs Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram and the then RBI Governor DR YV Reddy insulated India from the South Asian meltdown and also the financial crisis triggered by the subprime crisis that gripped America and other developing Nations.
So, without taking credit away from anyone where due, let us for a moment laud the contribution of the highway projects taken up by the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari to the overall growth of the country. In itself, they are big spending projects, and lead to a spurt in economic activity in related sectors from where the Government agencies and big contractors purchase materials for laying down roads. And the labour that is engaged, besides land acquisition amounts given to the people. All this infusion of money, kickstarting economic activity that was adversely hit by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, is having its own impact on few sections of the economy.
Now, the ambitious but eminently achievable Mumbai- Delhi Expressway, being built at a cost of Rs 95,000 crore, is one such mega project passing through Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and culminating in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra.
Traversing five States, the 1380 km of expressway already has led to a spurt in economic activity all along the route – land closer and on either side of the expressway has already become costlier, with shops, companies and factories slotted to be coming up in the not-so-distant future the locals residing near the expressway are happy that employment opportunities for the locals would increase.
Already, landscaping and beautification work has meant scores of villagers surrounding the expressway are engaged gainfully. The expressway will have wayside amenities, including resorts, dormitories, hospitals, food courts, petrol pumps as well as commercial spaces, such as warehouses and logistic parks, every 25 kilometres and a heliport for air ambulance.
Developed as an eight-lane access-controlled greenfield expressway, this one can be expanded to 12 lanes by adding more lanes in future. A median of 21-metre width is being built on this expressway, which can be reduced for widening the road. Once completed, the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway will be the single longest one in the country and will cut down the motoring time between the two metropolises to just 12 hours from the present 24 plus hours.
It is good to have a vision, in which technology will play a larger role. In the not so distant future, drones could be used and the Expressway would have helipads for this purpose, and also air ambulances along the highway would enable medical help to reach in double quick time if and when needed. There are plans afoot to build electric highways along the Expressway to facilitate electric vehicles that could commute without any difficulty.
Another new expressway between Delhi and Jaipur is expected to cut down travel time between the two cities to just 3 hours–which could even enable people to live in Jaipur and work in Delhi and vice versa. For sure, this expressway could be a reality even before the fast trains begin to operate, going by the pace at which the Highways Ministry is focusing on the projects, being built 24x7.
The scope and potential of the highway projects in India, currently being undertaken by Gadkari, are similar to the then ‘audacious’ Vajpayee plan for connecting four metropolises by four lane highways to accelerate movement of goods and services through the road network. It took personal involvement of Vajpayee as the Prime Minister to ensure that the project took off, and benefits began to accrue to the economy and to the people as soon as the project was completed in 2012 by his successor Government. The GQ project comprised 5,846 km, the then largest highway project in India when launched.
Connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, the GQ project touched cities like Pune, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Kanpur, Surat at north and Bengaluru, Visakhapatnam & Bhubaneswar in the south.
Faster goods transport network between major cities and ports, and smoother movement of goods, services and people in the country, and impetus to industrial development and jobs in smaller towns through access to markets are some of the benefits that flowed from the “leading sector concept of Golden Quadrilateral highways project.” Several new establishments in industrial and business sectors came up along the highways, in cities like Surat in Gujarat or Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, registered more than 100 per cent increase in new output and new establishment counts after the completion of GQ. There were several benefits to the industries in reduction of transportation costs and time and less expenses over wear and tear of vehicles.
Given the previous experience of our own GQ, and the experiences in other countries, it is reasonable to assume that the multitude of new highway projects across India and the Expressway projects will also lead to benefits – and especially for the automobile sector, other than the general public and a resultant huge rise in demand due to increase in investments, and thus jobs and livelihood, which in turn cause a spike in demand for goods and services – all adding up to an accelerating and expanding economy.
Side benefits include greater opportunities for the farmers through improved transportation of produce from the agricultural hinterland to major cities and ports for export. The farmers would have lesser wastage of their produce.
But then, there is one apprehension: what will be the price the common man will have to pay for these services, of Expressways ? Tolls could be high, and would they prove to be a dampener ? People in the Government feel that there would be an adequate number of users willing to pay for quality infrastructure and services. For the present, all across India, the slices of highways operated by private firms collect tolls and this process has become normalised. There could be differences of opinions and even arguments over the tariff, but on the principle, there is no debate.
If you want services, you need to pay up is the theme that every Indian now understands, and approves. As long as the person in question is able to.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman