Thursday, February 25, 2010

ROAD FOR DEVELOPMENT

Indian villages are largely disconnected!

The other day while coming by road from Chandigarh, I was pleasantly surprised by the kind of development that was happening along the highway. On both sides of the road, I could see construction of both residential and commercial buildings, particularly in the outskirts of cities like Panipat and Kurukshetra. It is not just that such development is happening only on that side, but the story is same on the Jaipur highway, Agra expressway, Ahmedabad- Surat highway, Mumbai-Pune highway, Chennai-Pondicherry highway et al. Irrespective of the magnitude of development, one commonality between all this developments is that it is around the highways.

Now here neither I am breaking any news nor I am talking anything radical. We all know that road infrastructure is a great developmental multiplier. But then at the same time, what fails me is the very fact that as a nation why is taking us so much time to create the road network which can transform the fortunes of rural India, which since existence has been pushed to margins. What fails me is that our Finance Minister will again, like always, announce allocations for broadly 10 development programs of rural India. Knowing very well that a large fraction of this allocated fund will again, like always, would find its way to middlemen and scamsters’ pocket. For instance, it has been reported that around Rs 30 crore meant for Indira Awas Yojana was siphoned off in Araria in Bihar between 2006 and 2008. Similarly, NREGA scam worth crores was recently busted in UP. Likewise, even Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Rural Electrification Project, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – to name a few - are laden with corruption and have failed to yield desired results year after year. If the objective was to connect rural India to mainstream through these schemes, then we all know that none of the rural development projects had ever been able to bring substantial change in rural lifestyle.

So instead of allocating funds which are largely off target, why can’t we mobilize it towards tangible asset creation? Take for example the United States, where a village is a specific form of integrated municipal government, akin to a city but with comparatively less authority. Most of the so-called villages in the developed part of the world are modern communities. In villages of Europe and a few Asian countries, one can find all modern amenities, like they find in cities and metros. And it is only because these villages are well connected with city via a high speed transport system. That’s why one can even find opportunities of all kinds reaching out to them. Starting from world class universities to schools to hospitals to large stores to hotels and restaurants have thriving existence. Unlike India, the countryside in the developed world also attracts huge number of tourists. Starting from vineyard tours and agri tours to green-tourism to local cultural events, tourism forms a viable economic constituent in rural development. And all this is possible, simply because there exists a world class road infrastructure which acts as the key development enabler.

It has become imperative for our planners to focus on internationally practiced Traditional Neighbourhood Designs and Transit-Oriented Development. And the seed is road infrastructure, as that would bring in more open area, unprejudiced development, and would also help in traffic de-congestion, increase affordable housing and further addresses issues like historic preservation on account of tourist footfall. If this seems an unrealistic dream today, then one just needs rewind ten years back and see what the NCR of Delhi was then, and what it is now.

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