The progress of a country is closely linked to the efficiency with which it transports its man and material. A good transport system aids economic growth by providing essential connectivity between available resources, centres of production and the market. It is also a vital factor in promoting balanced regional growth by ensuring the delivery of goods and services to the last man in the remotest part of the country.
Despite having one of the most extensive transport networks in the world, India has, for long, been plagued by very slow and inefficient movement of passenger and freight. The sector is faced with many challenges. The penetration of the transport network in remote areas and difficult terrains is inadequate. Highways are narrow, congested, and poorly maintained, leading to slow movement of traffic, valuable loss of time and a heavy burden of pollution. Accidents are rampant, leading to the loss of nearly 1.5 lakh lives every year. A very high percentage of the freight moves on roads even though it has been established that this is the costliest mode of transport, with the highest pollution burden. Rail transport is cheaper and more environment-friendly than road transport, but the network is slow and inadequate, while the waterways which are the cheapest and most environment-friendly of the three are grossly underdeveloped. The result of this unfavourable model mix is high logistics costs that make our goods non-competitive in the international market.
This narrative has, however, started changing since the last three four years. The government has made it a major priority to build a world class transport infrastructure in the country, that is cost effective, easily accessible to everyone, safe, create minimum load of pollutants and relies on indigenous inputs to the maximum possible extent. This has involved strengthening the available infrastructure by leveraging world class technology, building new infrastructure and modernizing the legislative framework to support this work. This has also involved partnering with the private sector and creating and nurturing an enabling environment for such partnership.
National highways constitute just two percent of the country’s road network but carry 40 percent of the traffic load. The government is working hard to augment this infrastructure both in terms of length and quality. Having started with about 96,000 km of national highways in 2014, we now have over 1.5 km’s and soon hope to reach 2 lakh km’s. The upcoming Bharatmal Programme will link border and international connectivity roads, develop economic corridors, inter corridors and feeder routes, improve connectivity of national corridors, build coastal and port connectivity roads, and greenfield expressways. This means that all areas of the country will have easy access to national highways.
The North East region, Naxal affected areas, backwards and interior areas are being given special attention in terms of building road connectivity. Bridges like the Dhola Sadia in Assam and state of the art tunnels like Chenani Nashri in Jammu and Kashmir are coming up to shorten distances in difficult terrains and make remote areas more easily accessible. High-density traffic corridors like the Vadodara-Mumbai, Bangalore-Chennai and Delhi- Meerut routes can look forward to world class, access controlled expressways, while travel to places of religious and tourist importance like the Char Dham and the Buddhist Circuit will get faster and more convenient.
Apart from adding kilometres, we are also committed to making the highways safe for travel. For this, a multi-pronged approach has been adopted that includes incorporating safety features in road designs, rectifying known accident black spots, proper road signages, more effective legislation, improved vehicular safety standards, training of drivers, improved trauma care and enhanced public awareness. Under the Setu Bharatam programmes, all railway level crossings are to be replaced with over bridges or under passes and an inventory with structural rating of all bridges on national highways is being created so that timely repair or rebuilding actions can be undertaken.
The Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha and awaits passing by Rajya Sabha. The Bill addresses road safety issues by providing for stiffer penalties, making fitness certification of vehicles and issue of drivers licenses transparent by computerizing it and minimizing human intervention, statutory provisions for the protection of good Samaritans and recognition of IT enabled enforcement systems.
The issue of reducing pollution is being addressed through a programme for replacement of old vehicles, adopting BS-VI emission norms from 1st April 2020, developing plantations along highways by involving the local participation and Electronic Toll Collection based on RFID tags called FASTags that will reduce waiting time at toll plazas. The use of alternate fuel like Ethanol, Bio-CNG, Bio-Diesel, Methanol and electricity is being promoted and some of these are already running in some cities on an experimental basis.
Looking at the cheaper and greener water transportation, efforts are underway to utilize the navigational potential of India’s 7500 km long coastline and over 14,000 km of inland waterways through the Sagarmala programme and by declaring 111 waterways as National Waterways. Sagarmala envisages developing ports as engines of growth. The idea is to industrialize the port areas by developing 14 coastal economic zones. This would be supported by modernization and augmentation of the port infrastructure, improving connectivity of ports with the hinterland through road, rail and waterways, and development of the coastal community. It is expected that besides saving Rs 35000-Rs 40,000 Crore as logistics cost annually, boosting exports by about USD 110 billion and generating one crore new jobs, Sagarmala will also double the share of domestic waterways in the modal mix in the next ten years.
In addition to the above, work is already in progress on several waterways including Ganga and Brahmaputra to develop their navigational potential. The World Bank aided Jal Marg Vikas project on Ganga aims to develop the river stretch from Haldia to Allahabad to allow navigation of 1500- 2000 tonne ships. Work on building multi modal terminals at Varanasi, Sahibganj and Haldia and other necessary infrastructure on this stretch is progressing rapidly. With this, much of the cargo movement to the eastern and north eastern parts of the country can be done through waterways, resulting in lowering of the price of commodities. Thirty-seven more waterways will be developed in the next three years.
While the highways and waterways sectors are being modernized rapidly, work is also underway for developing an integrated transport system based on an optimal modal mix and seamless intermodal connectivity. In this context, a Logistic Efficiency Enhancement Programme (LEEP) has been envisaged to enhance the efficiency of freight transportation in the country. This would include construction of fifty economic corridors, upgrading feeder routes, developing thirty-five multimodal logistics parks with storage and warehousing facilities and constructing ten inter-modal stations to integrate various transportation modes.
The transport sector in India is definitely transforming rapidly and is poised to become the biggest enabler for the country’s growth. As this revolution unfolds over the Indian landscape, we can not only hope to see the country developing faster, but also see the benefits of progress embracing regions and people who are still out of its bounds today.
*The author is the Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways and Shipping, Govt of India.