Arteries And Lifelines Of Development

by Garry Jacobs

“The roads and the railroads are the great motors of civilisation". These were the words of a French Imperial Prosecutor in 1867. He could have included not only civilisation, but national unity too. French history reveals that the expansion of the roads and railways played a premier role in bringing rural villages out of their cultural and economic isolation into the market economy and the modern world.

In the last decades of the 19th Century, the French government undertook an ambitious programme to extend roads and railroads into the rural areas. There are records to show the enormous impact of this programme on the villages: farmers rapidly took to new crops and modern agricultural practices, wider markets opened enabling them to sell their produce for up to 6 times the rate when their only customers were in the neighbouring villages, and in many areas agricultural production increased tenfold within a few years.

The French experience is not an isolated case, nor is it only history. It is a well-documented example of a worldwide phenomenon, which is still taking place today in developing countries everywhere. As one man put it, the lack of local all-weather roads in the rural areas "forces the farmer to consume all his produce, invites him to inertia, to laziness, to wastefulness." An Indian describing <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />India? No, a Frenchman speaking of France at the turn of the century. The pattern of development is the same throughout the world.

New roads and railroads in the rural areas mean swifter movement of people and goods; greater carrying power than the head-load or the bullock cart; more resources for village life like coal, kerosene, fertilizer; more production because wider markets are within reach; greater consumption because more products are available -- new foods for the diet, new building materials for the house, new tools, new clothes, etc.

National highways are the main arteries of industrialisation. Rural roads are the lifelines of village development. The importance of roads has been recognised in India and given priority by the planners. The total length of surfaced roads nearly doubled between 1961 and 1975. Under the Minimum Needs Programme of the Fifth Plan, a target was set to provide roads to all villages with a population of more than 1500, but by the end of 1978 only about 12,000 of 29,000 villages in this category had been covered. Today roughly 50% of all villages lack all-weather roads linking them with the outside world.

Building rural roads is the single most valuable programme that the government can undertake to stimulate rural development. Augmenting this with bus and lorry service facilitates marketing of village produce, employment in nearby towns, access to schools and hospitals. The time has come to declare rural road construction as an urgent national priority on a par with the malaria and smallpox eradication programmes which exterminated these diseases in a few short years. .

In some areas a bridge is needed to connect a village with the outside world. Here, if government cannot immediately act, the authorities must encourage private enterprise to build the connecting link without questioning the source of funds, and permit the private parties to levy toll fees for use of the facility, whose ownership could automatically revert to the government after 20 years.

State Lorry Corporations should be started along the lines of the State Transport Corporations to provide lorry services between centers of production in the villages and their known markets as an impetus to trade and commerce. For example, during cashew harvest season, weekly direct lorry service from production centers to the market in Cochin will eliminate middlemen and enable the farmers to get a much higher price for his crop, and stimulate increased cultivation. The same can be supplied to centers for vegetable and flower cultivation. The key is to provide a reliable regular service to meet specific commercial needs of an entire community in place of the random sporadic arrangements made by each individual seller to transport his own produce. Thus, innovative trade channels are created between presently unconnected points.

Similarly, introduction of state-owned refrigerated lorry services for dairy products, fish, and meat will facilitate supplies to distant areas and prevent spoilage. Such a service linking coastal fishing villages with inland towns could be a great boost to the fishing industry, opening up a much wider market and higher prices for the fisherman. For this to be viable, cold storage facilities must be made available at every market center. Wherever such facilities do not exist, they can be created under the charge of the panchayat unions.

French author Ardouin-Dumazet once exclaimed, "The railway -- infusion of life!" and added that wherever the locomotive passed, economic activity increased tenfold. Today the Indian economy is stagnating because of the railway transport bottleneck. During the three decades since Independence the length of the railroad has grown a mere 5% to about 36,000 miles. From 1960 to 1978 the number of wagon loads of freight increased only about a third, which means that most of the increased freight traffic had to be absorbed by expansion of the road transport industry in the private sector.

No one denies the need for expansion of the railroad which is by far the most economical means of long haul goods transport, but the investment required is beyond the government's present resources. During World War II the British reluctantly gave over management of the Trans-Iranian Railroad to the Americans in order to increase the essential flow of war supplies into Russia. In less than a year American capital and expertise had increased the goods traffic by 2½ times.

With the increasing demand of passenger and goods traffic in India it is worthwhile inviting some foreign companies to invest in another 30,000 miles of railway mainline here and to operate it on commercial terms for a specified number of years, after which the government can take it over for a fixed price.

Equally important, the railways must be extended into the rural areas. Initially feeder lorry services can be introduced either as a state owned or private sector undertaking to extend the reach of the railways to outlying areas. Railway lines themselves can be extended on the heavily traveled feeder routes by state governments or large private sector companies like Telco.

The efficiency of existing transport facilities can be substantially increased by detailed study of the fluctuations in the flow of goods and people from points of origination to various destinations. In Western countries research in this area is highly sophisticated. As a beginning, studies can be made of the seasonal fluctuations in the flow of goods by land from different production centers to major ports, which will reveal frequent bottlenecks and shortages of available lorry transport during peak periods resulting in unnecessary delays in export. Based on the results of this study, State Lorry Services can design special routes and schedules to meet needs during peak periods and specific delivery requirements from areas off the normal routes.

1980 marks an important milestone in air transportation with the introduction of the first regional airline in India, Vayudoot. Hopefully this is only the first step to be followed by a rapid extension to many other outlying areas. In the USA alone there are over 100 small regional airlines offering extensive commuter and freight services to small out-lying municipal and district airports and creating a virtual transport web on a scale which is not feasible for the large national airlines with high overheads. Small regional airlink services can be developed in India under the auspices of the state governments or large private sector companies. Private investment in this field can be encouraged by permitting the inflow of black money by suitable safeguards against exposure.

Industrial development requires a sophisticated transport network to provide for a rapid flow of goods and people within the country and overseas. Transport is an essential part of the infrastructure needed to support the growth of other sectors, but it also possesses the inherent capacity to play a leading role as a catalyst and stimulant to the overall progress of the nation.