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.
China built the first modern highway in 1913. At the time of the Revolution, it had over 80,000 km of road, but none of it was designed for speed; only a third was surfaced. Inspired by the Soviets, China's new communist rulers wanted to aggressively build railways; no one thought there would be as many cars as now 'even after 100 years'!
Deng Xiaoping's unshackled economy demanded roads. A milestone was the construction of the Beijing-Tianjin-Tanggu highway in 1987 (known as JingJinTang highway after the last syllables of the cities it connects). It was China's first competitively bid road project. China's highway construction took off in earnest in 1992. The plan was to connect all cities with more than half a million people with expressways. The original length was 30,000 km, later expanded by a sixth, at an investment of $150 billion. True to Chinese-style execution, all but 3 per cent had been done by 2004.
Halfway across the globe, America was showing the way to the world. In 1993, it completed I-105 in Los Angeles. This was the last link in the 68,000 km interstate highway system, which was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's antidote to the Great Depression. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to do an Eisenhower in India; predictably, the road-bumps were similar, but the jolts were more spine crunching. The world had imposed harsh economic sanctions on India after the 1998 nuclear tests; the Asian financial crisis aggravated the distress. Like Eisenhower, Vajpayee needed to devise an antidote. On 6 January 1999, he laid the foundation stone for converting the Bangalore-Hyderabad highway into six lanes. It was the beginning of his government's flagship national highway development programme. During his first full term in office, Vajpayee added more highways than the country had built in half a century.
The Vajpayee government suffered a shock defeat in 2004. The change in government coincided with a switch in the mode of highway financing. The Vajpayee government had awarded cash contracts, but the preference now was for privately financed toll roads. By the time the policy was stitched up and the contracts fine-tuned, the world was facing a financial crisis. Highways development came to a standstill. It has picked up since, but is far short of the target of 20 km a day. Land acquisition is the most common impediment. Writing in the New York Times, Amy Waldman called the makeover of the national highway system a metaphor for a country struggling to modernize itself kilometre by kilometre, 'goddess versus man, superstition versus progress, the people versus the state'.
China's highway construction target has been expanded to 85,000 km by 2020. Roads flatter the value of the land they pass through. There has been much debate on who should enjoy a rightful share of this bounty. Should original landowners get a slice of this road-inflated gain? In China, the authorities have settled this question unambiguously; in their scheme, the state has an almost unequivocal right to tap into this equity. In India, farmers say they must get a significant share of the upside. Their recent agitations along the Yamuna Expressway between Noida (near Delhi) and Agra is the latest in a series.