Highway System – India’s Loss

Whenever I have visited the U.S., the one thing which does not fail to impress me is the foresight of the urban planners in the 1940s and 50s who clearly foresaw the coming explosion of traffic and accordingly designed a vast system of highways all across the country.

In whichever manner one looks at a country, the first thing which impresses or hits one’s senses is the discipline of the traffic, the quality and network of roads and highways, the behaviour of the people on the roads. This cannot be denied. I do not think it is the “hard” economic power of a country which is on display, instead I believe it is the vision of the planners and actually the culture of the country. If a country can think through its population needs very well in advance and build out its infrastructure which is lasting even after six decades, that shows where in the evolution is that country, compared to India.

Even after all these years, we are still struggling to make our road systems barely work all over the country. In some parts of the country, the system does work reasonably well. But claims that the Mumbai – Pune and Bangalore – Mysore highways are outstanding would not stand scrutiny. Just building out a few highways and making tall claims reflect the hallmark of Indian behaviour. If the U.S. has highways with 8 lanes, we need highways with 12 lanes at the minimum given that the Indian population is almost four times that of the U.S. Repeating that the British left us with good roads is another hogwash argument. In the 50s when the U.S. offered to help India build its network of inter-city highways, what did India do ? It refused the offer of help and instead went on to depend on its Public Works Department. Because we did not want to work with ,what we thought was a polarized, anti-Soviet Capitalistic country ; rather, we wanted to be proudly Socialistic – and today, even India has given up on Socialism. Overall, a pitiable decision, and the results are there for all to see every day of our existence, even today.

Even the Indian Institutes of Technology with all their might could not impact the urban planning that is so much necessary in the Indian context – they focused on exporting engineers to the U.S. All in all, it was a total failure of successive governments, who in the guise of focusing on the needs of the poor, hardly paid attention to infrastructure.

My estimate is that we are losing atleast 3 percentage points of GDP growth every year due to lack of infrastructure – proper transportation networks in the country being the dominant aspect of infrastructure. Imagine what that could do to further alleviate the poverty in the country, and how much we have lost over the years is anybody’s guess.

India is a poor learner, having stayed proud on its civilization and history for thousands of years, It is unlikely to change dramatically. We should not expect a complex system of interconnected highways and freeways like what we see in the U.S. anytime in the near future. Even if we have the money, we will get caught in legal battles with landowners if we tried to expand our highways into 12 lanes ! The boast of the government that they would build 20 KMS of highways every day remains that – a tall claim !

One clear thing that is possible is to build the train network into a high-speed train system (speeds greater than 250 KMPH) which would enable fast transportation of people and goods. And, railways have the tracks and the land, Do they have the funds ? Look at China and how aggressively they are building high-speed train networks connecting remote parts of their country. Are we learning ?

India needs to take actions very fast, otherwise economic growth will be affected seriously.


Vijay Srinivasan
22nd April 2011


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