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India’s villages: for want of a road

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-08-2017 Livemint

The Silapathikaram, a Tamil epic dating back to the fifth or sixth century AD, paints an intriguing picture of common people moving freely for commerce and religious purposes both. Historical records bear this out. For example, the bazaar at Kandiyur—a village in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu—in the early medieval period was well-known, attracting people from all over the region as well as merchants from other regions of the subcontinent. Travellers and traders from as far afield as Turkey, China and Malaysia were also familiar sights.

Until recently, large swathes of rural India had not yet caught up. At the turn of the century, around 40% of the villages in India lacked all-weather connectivity, constraining them when it came to mobility. This placed limits upon their economic well-being; the fundamental relationship between economic activity and travel and mobility remains the same today as it was at the time of the bazaar. Economist Ricardo Hausmann and physicist Cesar Hidalgo’s theory of economic complexity—the basis of a new model to judge economic growth—explains this link well, as we have written in these pages.It rests on the concept of various capabilities that function as economic building blocks when connected by networks. These networks are robust in urban centres where distances are compacted, creating agglomeration effects. India’s rural hinterlands were another matter entirely.

Over the past two decades or so, this has started to change. It is one of India’s quieter success stories. Inter-state and intra-state migration from rural to urban areas and the economic benefits of labour mobility are one reflection of this. The Economic Survey 2016-17 used big data analysis to show that India is doing surprisingly well on this front. Using Census data, it found that in the 2001-11 period, annual inter-state migration stood at about 5-6.5 million. Since then, this number has jumped to around nine million according to the Survey’s analysis of railway passenger data.

Importantly, this labour migration growth rate is accelerating. In the 1991-2001 decade, it stood at around 2.4%, nearly doubled to 4.5% in 2001-11 and has grown since. Such labour flows usually accompany structural transformation of the economy—“the release of surplus labour from relatively low-productive agricultural activities to sectors enjoying higher productivity.”

That, though, tells only one part of the story. Everyday mobility, as much as labour migration, is necessary for efficient economic activity.

Take Vadipattu, a taluk in Tamil Nadu, and a far cry from the Kandiyur bazaar in not just years but also their economic situations. In an interview with Mint in 2012, Tara Thiagarajan, chairperson of Madura Micro Finance pointed out that on average, a rural adult there went beyond 5km from his or her home less than once a month. And a survey done earlier by her organisation showed that “of 200 entrepreneurs, less than 2% travelled beyond 20km to sell products—ever.”

The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) is the answer to this—the lower profile sibling of the National Highways Development Project launched in 1998 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The PMGSY, launched by the NDA in 2000, might not have garnered as many headlines as the Golden Quadrilateral, but it is vital—the first truly comprehensive attempt to address the issue of the lack of everyday rural mobility. In its original iteration and then as PMGSY-II, it aims to provide all-weather road connectivity to all rural habitations across the country with a population of 500 or more—and in the case of hill states, tribal districts and desert areas, 250 or more.

It has been a qualified success so far. As of last year, 64% of the initially targeted habitations have roads today. And as Harish Damodaran has pointed out in The Indian Express, the states that have seen the most road construction, such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, were the ones that were least connected at the turn of the century. An admirable policy continuity between the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administrations—the dip in funding under UPA-2 that has seen since been rectified by the Narendra Modi government notwithstanding—has helped. The World Bank, a partner in the programme, has noted the benefits, from increased access to markets and a rise in incomes in rural parts of Himachal Pradesh to the benefits for dairy farming in Rajasthan.

Problems remain, of course, such as poor quality of construction and maintenance. Until December 2010, the quality of rural roads ranged quite erratically from acceptable to abysmal as per the World Bank. Fortunately, the consistency of quality control has improved since—but more needs to be done here. Poor planning—a familiar bugbear in Indian governance—continues to be another obstacle. With a substantial minority of the target villages yet to be connected, that could impose a heavy cost when it comes to the PMGSY’s timeline.

The basic freedom to travel beyond the confines of one’s village is fundamental to development and reduction in spatial divergences in growth. Almost two decades of work have enabled that freedom for a great many Indians—but it remains a chimera for a great many more.

Is the government doing a good job of improving rural connectivity? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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