17 Jul 2015 19:41 IST

Country roads: miles to go

Much of the network is not up to international standards

Recently, I drove from Chennai to Bengaluru on a weekend trip. For most of the 357 km-trip (door-to-door distance measured by Google Maps), the roads were good enough to keep the speedometer over 100kmph for most of the journey. It took us, including two breaks in between, six hours to reach the Karnataka capital. “Decent speed,” my friend said. But the pace of close to 60km per hour is dismal by international standards.

While one could question my driving capabilities, in my defence I can cite the drive we did from Delhi to Agra last year using the Greater Noida-Agra Yamuna Expressway. I covered 208 km in two-and-a-half hours.

So, when Aditya Birla Group Chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla, in an interview with a financial daily this week said that the two sectors that have taken off under the Narendra Modi Government include roads, curiosity led me to check on India’s road infrastructure.

India has the second largest network of roads in the world with a length of 4.865 million km, second only to the US’ 6.58 million km. Though the CIA website does not use common data for the information (for instance, Indian data is from 2013, while it is 2011 for China, which is the third on the list), it doesn’t take away the depth of our road network.

Reality check

But then, just taking that number would be misleading as anyone who drives on Indian roads would know. According to a World Bank report, more than half of the 4.8 million km of roads in India are unpaved. Wikipedia says that India also fares poorly in road density. The country has “less than 3.8 km of road per 1,000 people,” says the website.

Interestingly, a table from the 2015 Statistical Year Book ranks Gujarat (where, as the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi had often cited the quality of roads) 10{+t}{+h} on the list of lowest density. Kerala fares the best with a density of over 5 km per 1,000 people; but that is still way below the United States’ density of 21 km per 1,000 people.

When it comes to highways of four or more lanes, similar to the ones I used for the Bengaluru trip, India’s density is even worse. It has less than 0.07 km per 1,000 people. United States’ density is 15 times higher.

This is a serious infrastructure issue as India pushes for growth. A report by logistics giant DHL says: “India has one of the world’s largest road networks… But much of this network does not meet Western standards. For instance, a truck takes five to six days to cover the 2,061-kilometer-long route between Bangalore and Delhi.” About 65 per cent of freight and 80 per cent of passenger traffic in the country is carried by the road.

And expressways? Only 1,324 of the nearly 5 million km of road in India are expressways. Smaller countries such as Indonesia (1,710 km), Poland (1,553 km) and Malaysia (1,821) fare better. China has 1,11,950 km of expressways. Little wonder that, while the average road speed in India is about 40 kmph, drivers in China go at least 50 per cent faster.

Pace of road building

A 2011 report by Wall Street Journal says that China had completed construction of 12 national highways 13 years ahead of schedule. In five years, it had built 33,000 km, which is 18 km a day.

The Road Transport and Highways Minister, Nitin Gadkari, wants to better that. Speaking during Question Hour in Parliament earlier this year, Gadkari said that the government plans to lay 30 km of roads per day in the next two years, up from the current level of 11 km a day. This year, added the minister, the rate will go up to 15 km.

Is it possible to build 30 km of roads a day? A Times of India story says that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) built 16 km a day during 2012-13, the fastest rate recorded yet. But, since then, an economic slowdown and the critical financial conditions of most of the road construction companies brought down the pace of construction. Things haven’t changed much.

Take the case of the proposed expressway between Chennai and Bengaluru that has been in the works for at least five years now. In May, the NHAI started acquiring land for the 262-km stretch which, when completed, can be covered in three hours. It will take at least another five years to complete.

The pace is similar to what Sher Shah Suri achieved in the 16{+t}{+h} century. He built the Grand Trunk Road, one of the famous highways of medieval India, between 1540 and 1545. The Grand Trunk Road, which was upgraded by the British, eventually ran 2,500 km-long. It began in Sonargaon near Dhaka, Bangladesh and ended in Peshawar, Pakistan.