Our dash to build roads could lift Indian exports Apextalk

As national elections draw near, public spending has taken an upturn in India. The government is relying on an infrastructure build-up to multiply people’s incomes and support economic growth. Paced-up highway construction has been placed in the spotlight by the Centre’s aim to construct a record 45km of highways daily in 2023-24 on an average. This would add up to 16,000km during the year, exceeding the last high of 13,298km achieved in 2020-21 at a rate of 36.4km per day. Highway construction had slowed after that, with our daily rate dropping to 29km and 24km in 2021-22 and 2022-23, respectively. Now with covid disruptions well behind us, the Union ministry of road transport and highways led by Nitin Gadkari has declared itself ready to step on the accelerator. This is laudable. Speed matters in bigger ways than literally how fast our wheels turn.

How quickly every spent rupee changes hands to create ripples of income has been a key concern. Road projects that employ a lot of labour—especially the hard-up who spend more of what they earn than others do—make money move faster than other forms of public expenditure. If such employment spans vast expanses of our landmass, its stimulus effect would also be extensive. The highway network itself is expected to play a major role in India’s Gati Shakti mission, which is aimed at faster and smoother freight movement and reduced logistical costs. By the ministry’s ambition, if all goes by plan, Indian expenses on logistics would account for no more than 9% of GDP by the end of 2024, as against a current estimate of about 16%. Such a sharp drop so swiftly sounds quite unrealistic, but it is still a target worth pursuing aggressively. Lumbering transport must be made a thing of the past for us to keep pace with the industrialized world and raise our chances of integration with global value chains. Capital blocked in slow transit and elongated delivery schedules must not hold Indian businesses back if they’re to compete overseas. India’s shipment of goods has been trailing our export of services. If we expect both categories to touch $1 trillion each by 2030, we must enable industrial inputs to get around the country and merchandise to reach ports cheaply and speedily.

On the importance of highways, Gadkari has cited John Kennedy more than once. “American roads are not good because America is rich,” the former US president once said. “But America is rich because American roads are good.” In the mid-1950s, the US had embarked on a massive project to link the country, laying a tarmac foundation for its economic expansion. Although our development path cannot be compared to America’s, as motor cars owned by median-income households were also part of the US mobility boom, the broad point will hold good if we make good use of our road network. Under Gati Shakti, the Centre has a mechanism to monitor an entire range of infrastructural enablers, including railway projects, and this has raised the hope of infra development without the usual time and cost overruns. Of course, cruise mode could still turn jerky, given all the potential obstacles. Also, project speed should not compromise quality. Shoddy work shows up quickly, as we saw with the new Bengaluru-Mysuru expressway. Moreover, many existing roads remain in spine-rattlingly bad shape. As big contracts are given out, routine upkeep must not suffer neglect. Even if this year’s mega target is achieved, we’ll still have miles to go.

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