India has one of the largest and densest road networks in the world, with a total of 3.3 million km. However, till the year 2000, around 30% of its population, or 300 million people, lacked access to all-weather roads. Moreover, a large part of the 2.7 million km network of rural roads was in poor condition. In late 2000, the Government of India launched its National Rural Roads Program (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana or PMGSY) to improve rural connectivity in a systematic manner. Until the end of 2010, the program had added 300,000 kms of rural roads, and improved connectivity to over 73,000 habitations.
The World Bank commenced its support to the PMGSY in September 2004 with a $ 400 million Rural Roads Project (2004 -2012 ). The project supported the program in building roads in select districts of Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
In December 2010, the World Bank approved a further $1.5 billion for the program to continue improving connectivity, especially in the economically weaker and hilly states. The new project will benefit an estimated 6.1 million people in Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh where it aims to provide 91% connectivity on average by constructing 24,200 km of all-weather roads.
The project will introduce e-procurement, social audits, and performance-based maintenance. More than 20,000 engineers, many contractors, and a skilled and unskilled workforce will be trained in modern road engineering practices and business procedures. The project also includes $60 million in technical assistance to build the capacity of the rural roads agencies, especially in the management of assets and the maintenance of roads.
From the rough, mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh to the dry, rugged landscape of Rajasthan, new roads are revitalizing the rural economy, raising incomes, and improving the quality of rural life. Farmers now find it easier to take their produce to market in time, school enrollment is on the rise, and families' access to health care has improved.
The Rural Roads Project has also brought about a paradigm shift in the way rural roads are mapped, designed, monitored, and built:
People Make the Choices: A unique feature of the program is the ‘Transect Walk’ where representatives of local communities walk the entire stretch of the proposed road so that their concerns can be taken into account at the design stage itself. For instance, where the community feels that a culturally sacred place, a heritage site, or an important seasonal water body will be affected by the road, an alternative route is found. If the proposed route crosses a very poor villager’s land, it is ensured that this land is not acquired.
Green Norms Established: The project has helped to lay down an environmental protection code to ensure that trees are planted along the newly built roads, steep hillsides are stabilized, the top soil is not affected, and debris from construction is not left behind after the work is done.
Quality Control: Before the project began, each state government had its own benchmarks for the quality of construction. The project has helped to establish common standards for all states across the country. The capacity of small local contractors to deliver works of the desired quality has been enhanced. Government engineering staff have also been exposed to global best practices in road construction.
Ongoing Maintenance Ensured: Contracts for road building have in-built 5 year maintenance contracts that ensure that the contractor builds a good quality road at the outset and continues to maintain it for five years thereafter.
Rural Roads in Himachal Pradesh
In the rough, mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh, farmers found it difficult to carry their produce to the nearest road for transportation to city markets. Village children had to undertake long and arduous walks to school, and medical help was hard to reach. Faced with few opportunities, young men left their villages to look for for jobs in distant towns.
The new roads have helped farmers to take their bountiful harvests to market. Their earnings have increased. Parents can now send their children to schools of their choice, with many opting for schools that teach in the English language. The older children, especially the girls, can now take the bus safely to high schools and colleges further away. Medical help is reachable more quickly, businesses are flourishing, and some migrants are returning home to farm their lands.
The region’s abundant farm produce now reaches markets in time
Before the roads were built, villagers carried their farm produce on their heads or transported it on donkeys down steep hillsides to reach the nearest road. From there, trucks would ferry their fruit and vegetables to market. This was both difficult and expensive. As a result, much of the produce perished in the fields.
“We used to walk all night to catch the early morning lorries. Only 20 percent of our produce got sent to market. Now that jeeps pass right by our farms, we manage to sell 80 percent of waht we grow. I send 3-4 quintals of fresh vegetables to market every day. It gives me a good income.” -Farmers Naresh Kumar & Shamsher Singh
More opportunities for schooling and higher education
New roads have opened up many new schooling opportunities. Many parents are now opting to send their children to English schools in town. Higher education too is within reach, especially for girls.
Medical attention is quick and easy to reach
Roads have made it easier for families to take a sick child, an ailing parent, or a pregnant woman to medical facilities in nearby towns.
“During the monsoons, the narrow dirt tracks down the hillsides get slippery. Earlier, when someone had a fall, it was impossible to get medical attention in time. Now, some farmers have earned enough to buy a car, and with the coming of the new road, they can drive an injured person to the hospital straightaway.”
New business opportunities abound
With roads running through the villages, business is booming and land prices have soared. “I could never think of building a concrete house because carting building material on loaders or ponies was impossible and financially out of my reach. I have now decided to build two shops on my land - a chemist and a stationary and book store.”
Migrants return home to open businesses and farm their land
With agriculture now a profitable venture, many migrants are returning home from the cities to farm their land. Some have decided to retire here rather than invest in a home in the big city.
“I was the first person to start growing vegetables once the road came to our village. Now, the entire village is doing so. Watching me work here, many villagers are returning from the cities to farm their land."-Yugal
Visiting home at festival time is now easier
With better connectivity, those who have migrated away find it easy to return home and meet their families during the major festivals.
“Our pace of life has suddenly changed, people are earning better and it takes less time to travel. Even our sons, who work in the big cities, now visit us regularly for festivals.”
Rural Roads in Rajasthan
Challenge: In the dry, rugged landscape of Rajasthan, children faced a hot and dusty trek to school, families had a hard time reaching medical help, and farmers, most of whom rely on dairy farming for their livelihood, found it difficult to take their milk to market.
Results: With the coming of the road, farmers earnings have increased, children can get a ride to school, and medical help is reachable more quickly. With the commute to town now being easier, city jobs are within reach, and families are receiving better marriage proposals for their sons and daughters.
Farmers’ earnings have increased
Before the road was built, farmers had to carry the milk long distances in the hot sun to reach the collection vans. Now, the vans come right to village doorsteps, raising farmer incomes. The rearing of livestock has increased.
“Earlier I would carry the milk containers on my back to the main road and often had to skip the trip altogether in bad weather. My earnings were miniscule. Now, a large refrigerated tanker comes every day to collect the milk. I sell 100 litres of milk a day on average, earning Rs.800 per month. And the milk doesn’t curdle." -Munna Lal Gayari, Beed Village, Udaipur
Children find it easier to go to school
Without a road, children often had to walk through dirt-tracks or across fields in the extreme heat of summer. Exhausted, they found it difficult to concentrate on their studies. Now they arrive fresh at school, enabling them to learn more easily.
“On days when it rained or was too hot, we would just keep the children at home. It was impossible to walk in this weather. The teacher would also take the day off. Now the teacher too arrives on time as there is a direct bus from his village.”-Shiv Kumar Gujar, Village Karansar, Jaipur District
In the past one year, there’s been a 20% rise in the enrolment rate. More than half of these new students are girls.” -Headmaster of a Primary School at Swami Ka Bas, Jaipur District.
Healthcare is within villagers’ reach
The primary health centre at Thooni Ahiran village now bustles with activity. Women come to deliver their babies, and complicated cases can be referred to the hospital quickly. Polio vaccines are easily available and children are being immunized regularly. TB patients are better monitored as they can now come to the centre every day to take their tablets in the presence of medical staff.
“Earlier, if a pregnant woman developed complications or was in pain, we would panic and ask our neighbors to do something. But, now that mobiles have reached our village along with the road, it’s easy for us to call the midwife or delivery nurse and ask her to come. With the road, she shows up soon enough.” -Devi Meena, Village Kherpura
Town jobs are easily accessible
In large parts of Rajasthan, where arid lands and high unemployment have left people in extreme poverty, villagers migrate to towns to earn a livelihood. Where the road has been built, many can now commute every day to nearby towns to work.
“I take the bus every day to work in Udaipur. Here I can earn Rs. 60 per day as a laborer. I try not to miss a single day. In the past, I would get tired after walking across two hillocks, and often turned around to go home hungry and exhausted. Though the bus fare is 10 rupees one-way, I can at least manage to put some food on my family’s table,” -Daulat Ram.
Families are receiving better marriage proposals
Life in a remote village meant fewer choices in marriage for young people. With easier accessibility, village folk are now receiving better marriage proposals for their sons and daughters. It is also easier for grown up children to visit home more frequently.
“Few people were willing to give their daughters in marriage into a village where access was difficult and time consuming. And, all wedding ceremonies had to be held by the side of the main highway. Now, the groom’s wedding procession comes right to the bride’s doorstep. Everyone - old people and little children - can now join in the fun. ” -Meena Devi
Villagers are joining the economic mainstream
The coming of the road is opening minds to the ways of the outside world.
“Before the road, no one understood anything, no one asked anything, and we had no chance to hear anything. We didn’t know what other farmers were doing or how they coped in difficult times. Now with the road, there is more coming and going, and we are slowly beginning to understand many things. We plan to educate our children. They will travel and learn the ways of the world.”