Wed, May 03, 2006 - Page 5 News List

India's road revolution starting to gain speed

HIT THE HIGHWAYSince a shift in thinking in 2000, huge efforts have been made to boost the nation's transport infrastructure to help maintain rapid economic growth

THE GUARDIAN , PUNE, INDIA

When Yohan Poonawalla took delivery of the first Rolls-Royce Phantom sold in India last year, the car was everything that he was promised.

Inside the 2.5 tonne, 6m vehicle was a hand-crafted walnut dashboard featuring a humidor. The tinted windows had electronically controlled curtains. Open the doors and out popped a silver-handled umbrella.

But the ?500,000 (US$917,000) vehicle's first kilometers in the country were traumatic for Poonawalla. Picking it up from Mumbai, the 34-year old scion of a wealthy industrial family had to drive the car to his home in Pune, 180km away. Despite its immense power -- the Phantom zooms from 0 to 100kph in under six seconds -- the car slowly picked its way through the maze of Mumbai's decrepit backstreets and gridlocked intersections.

"Taking it out [of Mumbai] was not easy. You had cows; people on the streets. There was no other way to get the car home. All I could think about was just watch out for the car," Poonawalla recalls. "It was the longest hour I have ever spent behind the wheel."

It was not until he made it out of the city that Poonawalla finally found a road decent enough to drive his Rolls on.

"The expressway is as good as any road in Europe. It was my first chance to really see how the car handles and travels," he said.

What Poonawalla experienced are the first fruits of India's roads revolution, which has helped propel the country's economic annual growth past 8 percent. The six lanes running from Mumbai to Pune are part of the 5,840km Golden Quadrilateral highway, which is the largest infrastructure project undertaken since the country became independent in 1947.

The expressways form a diamond linking Delhi with the nation's three other largest cities: Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta.

On schedule to be completed this year and within its ?4 billion budget, the Golden Quadrilateral marks the beginning of more than ?35 billion of road projects.

For anyone accustomed to India and the haphazard way things happen, the new motorways are nothing short of a miracle.

"We had to link the country up. This was a mission of the greatest importance for the economy," said B.C. Khanduri, who was minister of roads from 2000 to 2004. A retired major general in the Indian army engineering corps, he cracked down on corruption and delay.

"Look, we gave deadlines and made sure people met them. There were penalties for poor performance and bonuses for those who delivered on time," Khanduri said.

"My idea was to say good infrastructure could be built in India too," Khanduri said.

Many say that the initiative to create a high-speed road network was sorely needed as the nation's antiquated transport links were cutting deep into profits and slowing economic growth.

The comparison with China is a poor one. India's northern neighbor focused early on building up its infrastructure, especially its network of arterial routes.

During the 1990s Beijing spent ?18 billion a year on expanding its expressways -- 10 times the amount Delhi managed. The result is that highways, which move four-fifths of all goods transported in India, account for only about 2 percent of the country's roads.

Ports, too, are a problem. On average it takes 85 hours to unload and reload a ship at India's major ports, 10 times longer than in east Asia.

"Historically speaking, roads in India have been starved of funds and, even worse, their maintenance has been sorely neglected," said N.K. Singh, a former government adviser.

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