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.