Build Roads

I had once decided that if asked to write one of those schoolboy-type essays titled “If I became Prime Minister”, I would say that my agenda as the Premier would have just two items – reform the judiciary and build roads. It is but a slight exaggeration to say that every thing else will follow from that. Swaminathan Aiyar reports in today’s Swaminomics
that the second item of my agenda is indeed as important as I think it is. Ten lakh rupees spent on building good roads bring 335 people out of poverty, more than any comparable spending.

I had thought that if the NREGA had one redeeming feature, it was that infrastructure, specifically roads, would be built as a result. Alas, that is not to be:

For decades, rural roads in India were neglected by most states. Besides, rural employment schemes, starting with Maharashtra’s Employment Gurantee Scheme in the 1970s, created the illusion that durable rural roads could be built with labour-intensive techniques. In practice labour-intensive roads proved not durable at all, and those built in the dry season vanished in the monsoons.

This finally changed with the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) launched in 2000. This, for the first time, ordained mechanised techniques to provide high-quality, all-weather roads to 1.6 lakh rural habitations without pucca roads. It also upgraded roads that had collapsed. Panchayats were made responsible for maintenance. Conversations with experts suggest that this is one of the best-functioning programmes in rural development.

In 2004, the UPA government launched Bharat Nirman, an ambitious infrastructure programme for rural areas. It aims to provide connectivity by having a pucca road, electricity, telecom and drinking water in every village of over 1,000 people. This overlapped with the PMGSY. Progress on Bharat Nirman has been spotty. But rural connectivity has at last become a high government priority, and this bodes well for the future.

2 thoughts on “Build Roads

  1. I don’t know much about this NREGA except that it seems to be a rural benefits programme and a great bugbear of the so-called Indian blogosphere.

    I can think of a few reasons why it is being promoted. Firstly, the Congress government is not exactly popular. This is an attempt to shore up its rural voter base. Secondly, it is an attempt to protect the status quo considering the massive socioeconomic changes happening due to the high-voltage growth in the Indian economy. This programme may soften the pain of massive social dislocation as agriculture loses it status as the most important economic activity in India. Instead of having large number of unemployed rural people moving into cities, this programme will ensure that many stay put and the inevitable is delayed. Hopefully, it will prevent new Naxal-style uprisings while the economy adjusts fasts and builds capacity to take up more labour.

    Of course, I am ascribing Superman-like powers to this programme when I don’t know how well-funded it is. Considering the heartburn it is causing in the Indian blogosphere, I would hope it is massively funded. Now I don’t want to think of the people here are mean and mealy-mouth, do I?

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