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The New Road

The New Road

We´ve chosen to focus on roads and highways development again this month, making it the cover story for two straight issues in a row. Now, that is surely an unusual situation!
Given the government´s strong focus here, and the fact that roads alone account for half the projects awarded on public-private partnership basis in the entire infrastructure sector, both by number and amount, coupled with recent spate of positive policy changes, we decided the year-end was a great time to take stock of the developments in the road sector in the year just gone.

Led by a visionary minister, who is now referred to, in good humour, in industry circles, as ´Roads Gadkari´, there is no doubt Hon´ble Minister Nitin Gadkari is the face of roads construction and development in India today.

However, as the minister cracks the whip, anecdotal evidence suggests that an unfortunate fallout is the fact that senior management in the private sector is summoned to Delhi more frequently than ever before. ´Every consultant and bureaucrat worth his salt wants to prove he is working overtime,´ an industry leader said to me earlier this month. Not a minor inconvenience, admittedly, but one that can be overlooked, if it all results in faster progress and development!

The task ahead is a huge one. Sample these numbers. The country needs to increase its national highways network from about 96,000 km to at least 150,000 km. Moreover, of the existing 96,000 km, less than 25 percent are four-laned and there is significant room for improvement. State highways and other roads have been neglected and need urgent attention.

As the economy begins to improve, of which there are tell-tale signs beginning to emerge, it must be supported by a good infrastructure to move things like raw materials and finished products around efficiently. While GST is definitely expected to provide the soft push to speed up inter-state movements (which we might call ´soft infra´), we most certainly will need to have better ´hard infra´ by way of significant physical improvements of network of roads to facilitate smooth cross-country movement of commodities, equipment and everything else. While the initial focus is on the national highways, building new freight corridors, port connectivity, etc., and rightly so, we have to also look at secondary and tertiary road networks.

However, while all the attention is currently on removing construction bottlenecks, evaluating different business models and finding sustainable financing solutions, the government must also remain cognizant of the purpose of it all, i.e., providing a good user experience. Our feature article on technology in infrastructure touches on the user experience, an aspect sorely neglected in India. While the use and adoption of technology, no doubt, requires a change in mindset, there is no better time than the present to embark on such an exercise.

In the backdrop of climate change discussions in Paris, it may be relevant to bring in a related aspect of road projects. Independent research organisations and quasi goverment bodies have determined (and it is no rocket science) that concrete roads would improve fuel efficiency of our vehicles by at least 8 per cent. Not only that, this will result in major savings of foreign exchange through lesser imports of crude oil; it will also help us to reduce our CO2 emissions on like for like basis. So, adopting concrete roads does not only make better financial sense (because of lower life-cycle costs), but is also climate – friendly. Talk about killing two birds with one stone!

We are about to usher in another New Year. What with the Smart Cities project set to begin in earnest, a lot of hope for more growth, jobs on the horizon, with the festive season and the New Year just around the corner, it´s time to shed the old and don the new. Happy New Year, everyone!


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