Highway building has been off the priority list for quite some time as far as the UPA government is concerned. The national highway construction rate has dipped to an abysmal 3 kilometres per day, instead of the tolerable average of 7 kilometres per day during the entire financial year, with barely 600 kilometres added in the last six months, as opposed to 1,500 kilometres in the previous four. Although this dismal rate, which is the lowest in the last decade, has been attributed to poor market sentiment by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), this is an unbelievably steep slide considering that the UPA-II government, in 2009, had set out a rather ambitious plan of adding 20 kilometres daily, leading to upto almost 35,000 kilometres by 2014. In fact, there has been a steady decline in highway construction ever since the UPA government came to power in 2004, dwindling from the impressive average of 15 kilometres per day in 1999-2004, to about 13-14 in 2004-09, and further deteriorating to about 11 during August 2012. The fact that the original target set by the UPA government of 20 kilometres per day was overambitious is indicated by the tacit admission on the part of National Highway Authority of India Chairperson RP Singh that the said target itself was unachievable in the given circumstance of market slump coupled with rampant corruption in the construction sector.
Given that constructing highways had been the shiniest feather in the cap of the BJP-led NDA government, UPA’s shirking of the same smacks of a deliberate attempt to besmirch the so-called ‘dream project’ of the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime. The former Prime Minister had garnered worldwide applause for the construction of the Golden Quadrilateral Highway Network that connected the four of the largest Indian metropolises, viz., Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, and additionally providing road links to Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad and Surat. Further, the North-South-East-West Corridor, which is an on-going project, was also the brainchild of the Vajpayee government. The UPA government’s inability to make highway construction an equally rewarding undertaking indicates a wider failure on the part of the Manmohan Singh-led government to create adequate public infrastructure for India’s teeming masses, who are massively dependent on roads and highway networks as a daily means of transport. Not only does it further reiterate UPA’s continual apathy towards the aam aadmi, but also attest to the string of administrative failures that has been the chief trait of the government in its second term. By tasking the NHAI with building 8,500 kilometres of highways by the end of this financial year, the government is only shooting itself in the foot, as it could lead to an unprecedented scramble for the projects or a mass scale withdrawal of partaking companies.