Posted by: John Elliott | July 19, 2007

Hastening slowly on India’s highways


Writing about India’s 15,500-mile highways program is an exercise in portraying a glass that is half full and half empty. It is half full because, after decades of inactivity, real progress has been made in the last eight years. But it is half empty because that progress is far less than it should have been, especially in the last three years – mainly as a result of government lethargy.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article in Fortune that basically praised the improvements to India’s highway system. Though far from perfect, there had been far more progress than anyone would have thought possible a few years earlier. Some 3,750 miles (6,000 kms) of highways had been built between 1999 and the end of 2005 at a cost of about $7 billion, mostly on the Golden Quadrilateral highway that links India’s four biggest cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

My New York editors were slightly more skeptical and headed the piece “On The Road To Repair,” which was fair because progress had been bumpy, like the roads (an inevitable pun). Massive delays had been caused by slow land acquisition.

Corruption and bureaucratic lethargy were widespread, as was extortion by gangsters and Naxalite (Maoist) rebels in some areas. Foreign companies had generally stayed away, and not all those (mostly from Asia) that had won contracts were successful – a Chinese contractor had its contract terminated for lack of progress, and Russian firms had problems.

Little has changed in the two years since my article appeared, though new roads have been built (more on this below). My foreign friends are unimpressed, complaining about muddle and jams on the Delhi road to Agra and life-threatening drivers (and animals) on both that road and the highway to Jaipur and beyond. Many Indian friends typically refuse to believe that anything good could be done by the government, and it is fashionable for the Indian media (justifiably) to draw attention to the problems, while usually ignoring the achievements.

But India’s highway program has been a success, especially in the early years when the energetic Minister of Highways, Maj. Gen. B.C. Khanduri, a (then 71-year-old) retired army engineer who is now chief minister of the state of Uttarakhand, was in charge. He had enthusiastic backing from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, whose pictures were plastered in banners across completed and partially completed highways proclaiming, rightly, a success by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

Ironically, here is where a new set of problems emerged. When the BJP unexpectedly lost the 2004 general election, Sonia Gandhi, who heads the Congress-led coalition government, and her ministers did not want to draw attention to their predecessor’s successes.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, is an enthusiast and has ordered widespread six-laning of four-lane highways, but T.R. Baalu, his Minister of Road Transport Shipping and Highways, seems more interested in promoting a shipping canal between his home state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka than in building highways elsewhere.

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is an outpost of stifling bureaucracy and its press relations are virtually non-existent – statistics on progress are handled by a well-meaning librarian who has to consult his finance department for values of contracts.

There has also been extensive infighting between the NHAI and the Planning Commission, which has been trying to transfer funding from the public to the private sector. The Vajpayee government was arguably over-generous in its use of public funds.

That has led to battles over new public private partnership (ppp) terms and a model concession agreement is now in use that lays down new requirements on early land acquisition and other conditions. The size of contracts has been enlarged to an average of 60 miles, with several up to 120 miles, many times previous levels.

The hope is that this will attract more foreign firms, which would add expertise and speed up construction, though Indian companies counter that foreigners are not needed. Most non-Asian firms are mainly interested in handling specific tasks like toll road management or acting as minority partners, and that will not bring in the necessary funding.

As a result, the general impression is that the National Highways Development Project is doing badly because progress on the final 200 miles of the Golden Quadrilateral, started in 1999, has been very slow.

Only 760 miles have been completed on 4,500 miles of highways that will run from north-to-south down the length of India and east-west across the country. Even so, the total length of contract awards and finished projects are at last increasing: the number of new contracts awarded and miles of completed roadwork are expected to double, to 8,700 miles and 4,350 miles, respectively, in the next four years.

I still argue that the project is an overall success, but most of the credit for that goes to the old BJP government. The current administration needs to show more Ministerial enthusiasm, attract more foreign investors and contractors, cut the bureaucratic squabbling and push for completions on time.



  1. @Kapil Devnand:
    “You may also note that BJP-led Gujurat under Narendra Modi is a success story greater than even China.” Gujarat, an Indian state, having decent growth for a few years is to be regarded as a greater success than the 10% growth per year for 30 years for ALL of China? What rubbish! The fact that such nonsense could come from an NRI, who presumably is much more educated than the average Indian, tells me that India has got a long way to go to catch up with China.
    Now, time for some sober comparison: US states such as Texas, California, and New York are GREATER individual successes than ALL of India. California’s GDP alone is 40% more than that of India! Mr. Kapil Devnand, sometimes saying nothing is better than saying anything.
    It is my observation that the Chinese talk little but do a lot more; whereas the Indians seem to be all talk and little action. The Chinese promised a great Olympics, and they delivered. The Indians repeatedly PROMISED a great Commonwealth Games and incessantly TALKED about how great the preparations were going to be, and how this flyover was to be built and how that stadia was to be renovated, all the while the preparations fell apart and little had actually been accomplished in reality. Roads, bridges, flyovers, stadia, and military equipment are not made of words, so more talking and idle-boasts will produce much echo but little in the way of concrete results.
    I am afraid that Winston Churchill was right about India, and Napoleon was right about China.

  2. Thank you for mentionning the obvious: that the BJP deserve credit for India’s achievements, while Congress and the left aer all about creating caste divisions, appeasing minorities, and imposing quotas to cripple the Indian economy. You may also note that BJP-led Gujurat under Narendra Modi is a success story greater than even China.

    The enemies of India criticize Modi and the BJP, in an attempt to destroy progress there.

    Kapil Devnand, Member
    Hindu Conference of Canada

  3. If India’s infrastructure does improve, and the quality of life (outside the home) is on par with say, Singapore, there will be zero Indians coming to the USA. Why should they ? India has great hospitals, schools, colleges, plus one can stay back in one’s own country and enjoy the benefits all around.

  4. You’re right my man!! Congress is doing a sad job. Great article though and keep it up!!!!

  5. Disheartening, but true.

  6. con is opposite of pro.. congress is opposite of progress

  7. Excellent Article Mr. John !
    Any insights on the quality of the completed roads ?

  8. Just on the strength of building the roads alone, the BJP should have been voted back to power by the Indian people. They did something that the Congress could not do in fifty years and cannot do if given another hundred years.
    The Indian people want to regress more than progress, they ensure this by voting for the Cong-regress

  9. Sonia Gandhi led party does not want to se a prosper India. Only poor Indian can support her govt. If infrastructure is good then people will not be poor.

  10. Six lane fast highways…..maybe in six decades..hahahaa.

    btw…..United States of India???????? looks like folks don’t even have respect for the original name of Bharat.

  11. After Independence, the Congress Party and its corrupt politicians planned many roads on paper only and skimmed public funds. The BJP government brought real pride and real independence and freed the economy by killing corrupt practices.It lost elections due to ignorant voters. Now, the Congress is back again with its corrupt practices……and slow lane, long queue policies.

  12. Hi,

    Thanks for such an educative article.


  13. Is it tragic then that the Shining India campaign by the NDA should have failed so miserably?
    First time at your blog, Great work. Kudos and thanks.

  14. A very fair and truthful article. The current administration is going slow because it knows a lot of the success will be attributed to the earlier government. India needs goods infrastructure, and roadblocks such as the current govt’s mindset need to be rolled out flat. Wonder where will the next push come from?

  15. John, you are very right about it. And indeed if it was not for BJP’s ultra right conservative stand, then perhaps it would have expected a clean sweep in the last general elections in India. Golden Quadrilateral is indeed a welcome change in the highway scene of India, but worth noting is another fact, how Vajpayee-led BJP government was successful in containing insurgence in North Eastern states, mostly Assam.Few people know about it as it was an out and out Army operation, and especially after Congress government few will talk about it. ULFA, the infamous insurgent group was literally rendered broken by simultaneous operations in Assam coupled with support from Bhutan and Myanmar. Bangladesh didn’t agree with an “in-house mess cleanup”, and yeah…that did sour up the relations a bit. Do write someday about that.
    Till then

  16. I totally believe we will have six lane highways similar to the US with fuel efficient cars zooming on our highways.

    Our Govt under ManMohan Singhs Guidance will Get This Done!

    for the
    United States of India!

  17. Indian politicians and governments have for long used the excuse of being a noisy democracy as a reason for why things move so slowly. It is time that they stop pulling the wool over the eye’s of the world and accept that large scale corruption and plain sloth that can run rampant only because of a largely illiterate and poor electorate is to blame for the glacial progress India is making. India is no hare!

  18. Feels so sorry to read, that the governments/different parties in India fight like girls… are jealous of each other…. and are busy in promoting themselves and not the nation…

    may be britishers should have ruled a few more years…till the Indians really realized the importance of being a ‘Free Nation’ … and focused their energies on growing the nation and not growing their own pockets….

  19. Hi John,
    I fully agree with your article.Its true that the government needs to speed up the process.Quality,promtness & reliability is what is required.
    President J F Kennedy once said, America has good roads not because it is a Rich country but America is a Rich country because it has good roads.

  20. I represent India and I totally believe that we WILL have similar six lane fast highways same as of America.

    There are some leaders who have seen everything in life and just want to do good !

    God bless the USI ! ( United States of India )

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