Connecting the unconnected
In 1998, the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched a massive National Highways Development Project for building a four/six-lane expressway network connecting the four metros (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata) along with four corners of the country (Srinagar, Porbandar, Kanyakumari and Silchar). The impact of it is well-documented.
Not as known and celebrated, however, is a parallel programme that his government initiated on December 25, 2000 — the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) for providing all-weather road connectivity to every rural habitation with a minimum population of 500 in the plains and 250-plus in hill states, tribal districts and desert areas.
The fully centrally-sponsored scheme covered a total of 1,78,184 habitations as per the criteria laid down. The fact that 1,14,540 or 64 per cent of these eligible habitations actually have roads today — with projects being cleared for another 30,501 — can be considered a reasonable achievement. Since its inception, PMGSY has provided connectivity of over 4,66,044 km — including upgradation of 1,67,977 km of existing roads — at an aggregate cost of Rs 1,41,822 crore as on January 2016. But the real story is not how much, but where these roads have got built.
The states that have recorded the highest road construction — Madhya Pradesh (63,548 km), followed by Rajasthan (58,462 km), Uttar Pradesh (45,905 km), Bihar (35,510 km) and Odisha (35,019 km) — are the ones which were the least connected at the turn of the century. Bihar alone had 34,637 habitations originally eligible under PMGSY. Of these, 15,048 now have road connectivity, with work on another 12,136 habitations receiving clearances. Even more impressive is the connectivity for MP (14,085 out of 18,404 eligible habitations), Rajasthan (13,587 out of 16,694), UP (11,228 out of 13,984), Chhattisgarh (8,592 out of 10,191) and even West Bengal (12,141 out of 18,641).
Simply put, PMGSY represents a rare public programme that qualifies as a success in terms of achieving both equity and efficiency objectives. The latter is measurable by way of connectivity targets being reasonably met, as well as the quality of assets created: The roads built under PMGSY are required to meet the technical specification and geometric design standards in the Rural Roads Manual, specially brought out in 2002 by the Indian Roads Congress. All PMGSY roads are also covered by a five-year maintenance contract. This is in addition to the construction contract to be entered with the same contractor, as per a Standard Bidding Document.
Yet, strangely, this programme has not attracted the attention of either mainstream ‘reformists’ — for whom the high-profile NHDP holds greater appeal — or even MGNREGA-obsessed NGOs. This, notwithstanding its arguably superior record in targeting poorer states than MGNREGA (see ‘A more effective antidote to poverty?’).
“The biggest impact has been on productivity. Once there is connectivity, hitherto isolated hamlets become part of larger clusters of 200-300 villages with 50,000-100,000 consumers, against 1,000-2,000 previously. This allows for economies of scale, specialisation and flourishing of microenterprises”, says Neelkanth Mishra, India Equity Strategist at Credit Suisse.
PMGSY has made it possible for producers of perishable produce such as milk, fish and vegetables to sell these to a wider base of consumers. Equally, it has enabled companies to distribute their products through rural retail stores. “These stores were earlier unviable both for their owners and the companies wanting to replenish stocks. But with motorable roads today, you have more efficient supply chains and lower inventory costs. Also, the village residents themselves no longer need to go to nearby towns for buying their bar soap”, adds Mishra.
An important factor behind the PMGSY’s success is that it did not suffer for lack of funding for most of the time. Initially, it was financed largely through a 50-paise-per-litre cess on diesel, which was raised to 75 paise in the 2003-04 Budget. The UPA, which came to power a year later, did not undermine the programme, despite it being an NDA flagship. On the contrary, it enhanced allocations, unlike what the present NDA government has done to MGNREGA, a UPA baby.
Thus, between 2000-01 and 2003-04, a cumulative expenditure of Rs 6,607.83 crore was incurred under PMGSY, with 51,511 km of roads getting built during this period. In subsequent years, both expenditures and road construction rose substantially, reaching a peak in 2009-10. That single year saw 60,117 km of rural roads construction.
It was only under UPA-2, especially from 2011-12, that the programme suffered cutbacks (see table). The current NDA government under Narendra Modi has sought to put PMGSY back on rails, increasing allocations significantly. “This year, we will spend Rs 25,000 crore, which also includes the 40 per cent share from states. In 2016-17, this would go up to Rs 27,000 crore and our target is to achieve 45,000 km”, says a Rural Development Ministry official.
A clear picture of what the government plans to do with PMGSY would emerge on Monday, when Arun Jaitley presents what is expected to be a ‘rural-focused’ Budget.
When islands become mainland
By Santosh Singh
It wasn’t too long ago that the so-called road from Jarang on National Highway-57 (connecting Muzaffarpur to Purnea) to Katara was more ‘boatable’ than motorable. For 7-8 months of the years, when much of this 22-km stretch was submerged, the journey through it actually entailed riding on small boats. But two developments in the last five years have helped bring Katara, a low-lying block town of Muzaffarpur, ‘closer’ to its district headquarters barely 40 km away via Jarang. The first was an embankment on the Bagmati River, preventing its waters from inundating large areas between Katara and NH-57. The second is a cluster of roads built under PMGSY.
Both together have made it possible for those living in Katara to really connect to other parts of Bihar. As the likelihood of inundation has reduced and boatable roads have given way to motorable roads, agriculture, too, has received a boost, with farmers being able to grow and market two crops — paddy and wheat — in a year, as against hardly one previously. Alongside, it has also led to the development of a hitherto non-existent land market. A katha (1,361 square feet or 0.03 acres) of land within a km of the NH-57 highway in the area today costs Rs 3-4 lakh.
But it’s not just Katara’s residents who have benefited. The shiny 7.3-km PMGSY stretch from Jarang to Bhusra Path — there’s another road connecting the latter further to Katara — runs through Asiya, Loma, Kamarathu, Jaya and Chorniya. They are all villages that have undergone transformation from ‘islands’ to ‘mainlands’ ever since this road, built at a height of 5-6 feet to avoid submergence came up. Costing Rs 40 lakh, its construction began on May 30, 2010 and was completed on November 9, 2011 well within the stipulated deadline. As per the tender agreement, the construction firm is obliged to also maintain the 7.3-km road for five years — which ends this November.
When asked what difference the road has made, Uddan Sahni stops his bicycle to show the aluminium container tied to the carrier. It has katla and rohu from the pokhar (pond) near his village of Asiya. Earlier, the 55-year-old could sell this freshwater fish only in and around Asiya. But connectivity to Jarang has enabled him to sell the same fish — cheaper to catch from the pokhar than procuring at market rate — in villages along NH-57. Sahni now earns Rs 500 per day, double what it was previously. “Bhala ho pradhanmantri gramin sadak ka (blessed be PMGSY)”, he declares.
Sahni isn’t alone. Vinod Kumar Thakur, who tills two bighas (40 kathas or 1.25 acres), recalls the floods of 2007 – how these had converted the fields in Asiya into virtual ponds for months together. “Earlier, we just had a kutcha brick soling road, which itself would be under water. But with the PMGSY road that has been built at a height and also the embankment, we can easily take two crops. For the last many years, we were simply leaving our fields fallow”, he says.
According to Ram Pravesh Singh of Berwa village, a major benefit from the PMGSY roads, extending from Katara all the way to villages adjoining NH-57, is the improved access they have provided to schools and colleges. Many young students have bought motor bikes to go to colleges, while girls are riding bicycles to high schools.”There’s no better feeling than getting linked. Previously, we were looked down upon and it wasn’t easy to find marriage alliances for our boys. But the Bagmati embankment and the network of roads have suddenly changed people’s perception: They at least consider us as being from the civilised world”, he states.
If Katara is a story of people ‘rising above water’, the 6.82-km-long PMGSY road from Rajganj to Nathpur in Narpatganj block of Araria district is a tale of taking connectivity right to the Nepal border. Though still to be fully built, the locals have kind words about it, compared to the situation of wading through a muddy and dusty track only two years back. The Rs 4.52-crore project, on which work started on March 1, 2014, was to be completed by February 28 last year. But the leveled, even if not concretised, road itself has given people reason to cheer, because there is at least reasonable connection now between the Nathpur border and Narpatganj block town on NH-57.
“It isn’t about the small distance of 7 km, but about access to the 15-odd villages along the route. The earlier road was full of pits and only tractors could ply on it. No block development officer or circle official would ever venture into villages here”, notes Ramji Paswan, a farmer from Nathpur.
Pankaj Kumar, who belongs to the same village, is not happy with the slow pace of construction. But he agrees that even a leveled mortar road today makes it easier to reach Narpatganj, from where there is a relatively smooth ride all the way to Patna. The number of motorcycles in his area has gone up five times in the last two years, he adds.
For Tarachand Paswan, 60, the journey from Nathpur was previously about bullock cart rides, with Narpatganj seeming like a ‘distant town’. He recollects how difficult it was to bring a car to the village and “we often had to cut the mud boundaries of our field to allow any VIP to reach us”. That has changed and “there are four-wheelers, too, in our village now”.
The most emphatic point is made by Laddu Bhagat, a local journalist: “The cluster under PMGSY has made our job of doing spot reporting from far-flung villages easier”. That is something one cannot possibly deny.
A more effective antidote to poverty?
By Harish Damodaran
Is the PMGSY more pro-poor compared to MGNREGA? Going by where monies under the two programmes get spent, the answer could well be yes.
In a recent analysis, NC Saxena, Distinguished Fellow of the policy think-tank Skoch Development Foundation and former Secretary, Planning Commission, has noted how the expenditure on MGNREGA is higher in better-off states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh than in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Odisha, where the need for such a scheme is arguably greater. The average annual MGNREGA spend in TN, for instance, is two-and-a-half times more than that for Bihar.
It is the opposite, however, for PMGSY where the expenditure incurred in Bihar is over six times that in TN (see table). Saxena has shown that Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh together accounted for nearly 45 per cent of the total spending on PMGSY in 2014-15, whereas their corresponding combined share in MGNREGA expenditure was just 25 per cent.
Saxena attributes this discrepancy mainly to programme design. While MGNREGA is supposed to be demand or need-driven, the reality is that it is being successfully implemented only in better-governed states even with lower levels of poverty. In contrast, under PMGSY, state-wise allocations are fixed based on pre-determined gaps in road infrastructure. That automatically ensures more money being released and roads getting built in Bihar rather than in TN or Kerala.
Noted agriculture economist Ashok Gulati believes PMGSY is less prone to leakage because it is a specific asset-focused programme, unlike MGNREGA that is general dole-based and not amenable to monitoring beyond a point. The rigid labour-material ratio prescriptions under MGREGA also means that the quality of assets created aren’t of the standard of roads constructed under PMGSY.
MGNREGA may have a role in mitigating immediate rural distress on account of drought and other unforeseen calamities. But programmes like PMGSY provide more effective long-term poverty alleviation solutions, through raising of overall productivity and expansion of non-farm employment opportunities, adds Gulati.