I have blogged earlier that among all infrastructure (and any other capital investments) investments, all-weather rural connecting roads will deliver the largest bang for the scarce development buck. Accordingly, a "big push" drive into road investments was suggested.
In this context, an Indicus Analytics feature in the Business Standard quantifies that a rupee invested in rural roads has the potential to generate more than Rs 5 in returns, and that too just from agricultural production. While, the five-fold multiplier estimate will certainly generate dispute, it cannot be denied that the impact is substantial.
The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) was launched in 2000, with the specific objective of connecting the 330,000 estimated habitations (out of 825,000) with all-weather connecting roads, and to be financed from a dedicated fund built-up from levy of a special-cess on high-speed diesel. A decade later, 30% of the habitations remain unconnected, thanks to problems with difficult terrain, seasonal limitations on work schedules, need for statutory clearances from the forest department, limitations of qualified manpower and contractors, and nonavailability of dedicated personnel with streamlined institutional arrangements.
Here are a few observations on the issue of rural roads in India, excluding the much-discussed construction bottle-necks.
1. Despite the one full decade of PMGSY, the percentage of unconnected habitations decreased only slightly from 37.2% to 29.9%. Do we need an even bigger push with PMGSY investments?
2. While the total number of unconnected habitations fell by about 8 percentage points, those with population less than 500, at nearly 40%, hardly moved. This is understandable given the fact that scarce resources means that political priorities would always favor connecting the larger habitations (and rightly so, more so since these locations are more likely to be closer to some existing road network and therefore connecting them would be cheaper). But this also means that the remotest and most backward habitations, especially those in the tribal areas, are likely to remain the least priority areas and amongst the last to be connected.
3. Apart from the fact that the smaller habitations are more likely to be the farthest and therefore the most costliest to connect, there is the political dynamics to the PMGSY sanctions. Typically, a district would get Rs 30-50 Cr under the scheme every year, and the political dynamics means that there would be pressure to cover as many constituencies as possible. This also means that the cheapest to connect habitations (which are more likely to be the larger ones) get preferred. Their higher estimates would put the farther habitations at a disadvantage in the competition for attracting sanctions.
4. The quality of a major portion of these roads are doubtful. This means that a considerable share of the roads contructed in the first half of the decade are now not motorable. In other words, the additions conceal the fact that a number of them are becoming un-motarable with each passing year.
5. The concept of connectivity is dynamic, sice with time roads develop pot-holes and require wholesale re-laying. It is certain that the connecting roads for a significant share of the 70% or so connected habitations are likely to have fallen into such a state of dis-repair as to be reclassifed as unconnected!
6. Further, in the absence of any maintenance contract, there is no workable mechanism available to ensure continuous operability of these roads. Given the resource constraints faced by state road transport departments, it is inconceivable that they can be relied upon to institutionally maintain these roads. An approach that accounts for the life-cycle costs of these investments would be more suitable than the standard lay-it-and-forget-it approach.