The Way Ahead for Rural Connectivity

– Nikhil P Shaji, Programme Officer

Roads are the lifelines of modern day economies. This statement cannot hold stronger than it does in the case of India. With its vast geographic territory and stunning topographical diversity, India is known for its colossal agricultural or rural sector. The agricultural sector employs a little over half of India’s total workforce. And this category of workers indeed represents India’s ailing labour class, victims of traditional and systematic exploitation meted out to them. Right from the initial years of independence, an umpteen number of government sponsored schemes, programmes and revolutions have been implemented which specifically targeted/targets rural upliftment. To date, rural development still remains a national priority and an endless road for Indian planners and successive governments.

From a connectivity perspective, though much credit can be attributed to Indian Railways that cover 64,460 kilometres in total length and penetrates into the remotest parts of India, the process of rail to road transition was never a bright spot. This factor has always remained one of the most serious roadblocks in scripting the Indian growth saga as equitably as we have striven for. The multipronged benefits that India can derive from efficient rural road connectivity need no mention. Some of the most attractive among the inexhaustible list of benefits that one can quote are closing the urban-rural divide, reducing the in-transit loss of agricultural produce, provision of urban amenities to the rural sector, etc.

Acknowledging this challenge, Government of India introduced Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) in the year 2000 as a flagship poverty reduction strategy for the isolated and remote habitations scattered across the nation.

PMGSY and Corruption

16 years of PMGSY boasts of a staggering 4.70 lakh kilometres of completed road length across the length and breadth of India. However, quality of these new roads is far from satisfactory. PMGSY, like most other government initiatives, has not been impervious to imperfections caused by corruption which mar the execution and implementation channels. Connecting rural India still remains a missing link from the lens of numerous governmental schemes targeting rural development and the credit for it goes to corruption that has so conveniently festered in rural India. This complemented by corruption in the infrastructure sector, which a 2013 Ernst & Young study terms one of the most vulnerable sector to corruption in India, has had a hampering effect on rural roads.

Needless to say that the concerned authorities should prioritise making PMGSY projects more efficient, and coming up with enduring solutions to the problem of poor quality roads constructed under this scheme is the need of the hour. One such alternative solution can be observed in Public Affairs Centre’s recently concluded the third leg of Citizen Monitoring of PMGSY roads in seven states partnering with NRRDA (National Rural Road Development Authority). The concept is simply to empower the citizen to monitor the quality of roads being constructed under the scheme. “The sense of being watched” which this initiative evokes among concerned authorities and contractors can in turn bring about some difference.

The Ground Reality

For the purpose of illustrating the disadvantaging impact of poor rural connectivity on other government initiatives, let us bring in the classic argument against FDI in retail. Significant reduction in post-harvest, in-transit loss of crops in India is supposedly one of the biggest positive for rural India as per the narrative of FDI advocates. For a nation that loses 45% of its total horticultural output in post-harvest transit, FDI in retail should sound like a harbinger of “Achhe Din”. However, the grim fact remains that FDI in retail may not trigger a significant and desirable trickle-down effect in the absence of good quality all weather roads which connect the market places and the production houses. Market places, here, are the urban centres and the production houses referring to the rural sector. Adversely, the increased cost of refrigerated transportation (pertaining to the example of horticulture output) aggravated by extra time consumed and magnified maintenance costs, will have to be incurred in the market place. The element of inclusion in the process of economic growth once again takes a beating as no particular benefits of increased prices penetrate down the pyramid to the poor Indian farmer as it is lost to the extra costs incurred. Further, the farmer is also deprived of the intended monetary benefits accruing to him as more of his produce reaches the market, rendering FDI a futile exercise in this front.

Indian farmers are disadvantaged by a number of factors. But, even at the face of great adversities, India has always remained a formidable global player in agricultural production and exports. This is indicative of our society’s inherent strengths in this sector. The present government’s “Make in India” initiative will bear fruit only when it can successfully harness the real potential of rural India which has hitherto remained considerably dormant.

Majority of India’s population resides in rural areas. Not acknowledging this factor with due respect can easily slingshot our economy into an abyss of policy nightmare. Rural resurgence in India should be through the revival of its agricultural sector which has strong forward linkages and PMGSY roads should assume a vital facilitative role in the whole process.

Strengthening PMGSY is one effective step that can be taken at this particular juncture. Citizen monitoring of PMGSY roads, as mentioned earlier, can be an effective tool in ensuring the effectiveness of this scheme. When citizens are empowered and equipped with the technical know-how to monitor the quality of roads being constructed, there is little room for corruption and other such practises. Getting the basics right and facilitating a spur to the rural economy by providing essential infrastructure should be the first step in our plan for course correction.

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