There is a real fear of all hopes of double-digit growth being stymied by the inability of the available infrastructure to cope with the exploding demands all over the country. The Central and State Governments have been forced into something akin to climbing a greasy pole with both the scale of investments and pace of execution of projects falling behind the targets, leading to heavy drain of scarce resources in time and cost-overruns.

Of the many dimensions of the problem, the one that is going to prove the most frightening in course of time, but is not receiving the top-priority attention it deserves, is the roads sector. To the contrary, media reports are replete with boasts about several Detroits being transplanted in India, the staggering 100-fold increase in the number of motorised vehicles, a 30 per cent jump in car sales in 2010, more than 2000 vehicles being registered daily in every metropolitan city, and the Indian automobile market overtaking Japan and the US to become the second largest in the world by 2020.

Traffic density

According to the third BRIC report, with a million cars added every year, India will have the largest number of cars in the world — 611 million to be precise — by 2050, with every sixth car produced in the world meant for India!

Mark you, this is only in respect of cars. You can have an idea of the strangulating traffic density, and the magnitude of the unprecedented chaos brewing on the roads if you take note of the following: The current number of 1.3 million trucks and the annual production of about 10,000, not to mention the millions of two-wheelers and three-wheelers darting in and out of traffic; the more than 42 per cent growth in the number of heavy commercial vehicles sector in the last quarter of 2010-11; the quantum (80 per cent of passenger traffic and 65 per cent of goods) carried by Indian roads; and the costly hold-ups of days caused by inter-State barriers to movement of goods.

What with the unrestrained production of all types of vehicles and India's road density of only 2.75 km per 1000 people as against the world average of 6.7, there will be no doubt in anyone's mind about India's roads sector facing the grave danger of utter paralysis in the next few years, dragging the economy down with it.

New strategy

India's planners and policy-makers, if they are serious about heading off the danger, will have to get back to the drawing board and rework the priorities, the targets and the sums.

The starting point of the new strategy will have to be to fix the goal of road density to be attained at the essential minimum of 5 per 1000 people by 2020. The immediate concern should be to expand the national and state highways, which respectively make up only two and 13 per cent of the total road network, but between them carry nearly 80 per cent of the total traffic. This will call for upward revision of the present target of 35,000 km of additional highways under the UPA-II's regime.

Second, there should be no squeamishness about going all out to mobilise resources from wherever it can be found — whether private sector or global investors. The Government has envisaged an investment of $60 billion into highways and road infrastructure, of which it expects $40 million to come from the private sector. It is also looking to foreign players to bring in $10 billion for its 20 km-a-day road building mission. Every effort should be made to exceed these figures.

Meanwhile, the Government should give earnest consideration to imposing a ceiling on the production of fancy cars, encouraging use of public transport and car pools, and charging fees on vehicles entering congested areas. The results in London and Singapore of such a levy have been dramatic with a steep fall in traffic and perceptible rise in speeds.