Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Urgency Is The Missing Ingredient In India's Expressway Development

Emperor Sher Shah Suri is the father of India's roads-he built the Grand Trunk Road 450 years ago. It spanned the breadth of India from current-day Bangladesh to Pakistan. At every 6 km was a sarai or rest place for caravans. Centuries later, Adam Smith would call roads 'the greatest of all improvements', but Sher Shah Suri had figured it all out for himself. He realized that roads promoted commerce and generated revenue for the state. Medieval India's Mughal empire was dotted with kos minars (towers every 3 km) as markers of distance.

After the British vanquished the Mughals and occupied India, they re-laid the Grand Trunk Road with a slight change in alignment between Kolkata and Varanasi in central India. This 'work of great magnitude' was carried out by the Department of Public Works, which was formed by the British in 1849, after annexing Punjab.

But much of the good work came to a standstill after India's independence. There was no highway construction during the first Five-Year Plan in the 1950s. In the third, the entire addition of 179 km over five years was in Assam. In the 1960s, the primary responsibility for road building was transferred to the states. The inability to build highways and expressways was aggravated by the failure to maintain them.