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Roads to prosperity

The refurbishing of roads in rural Bengal has occurred through a silent revolution that churned through the agrarian hinterlands reducing mortality and propelling employment opportunities, writes Tarun Goswami.

Sufia Sardar, a 25-year-old woman who experienced sudden and intense labour pain, was taken to the Block Primary Health Centre in the Sundarbans, where, on the next morning, she gave birth to a male child. On two previous occasions, Sardar had given birth to stillborn babies as she could not reach the health centre on time.


Ananda Rajak, who was bitten by a snake, got a new lease of life after he arrived at the health centre in due time before his situation worsened.

The credit can be duly given to the construction of rural roads that has altered the lives of the people living in rural areas. For anyone visiting the remotest parts of rural Bengal, the first thing that will draw attention is certainly the marvellous, silky smooth roads that now connect most of West Bengal. This is the story of the magical touch of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that has infused a new lease of life in the villages of Bengal by constructing thousands of kilometres of motorable roads. The smooth road connectivity has improved the lives of villagers –many of them who had once starved with insufficient resources are now receiving one square meal a day as the economic regeneration in the villages has created fresh job opportunities.
Rural roads in Bengal, before the Trinamool Congress government came to power in 2011, were synonymous to hell. The roads were embellished with potholes, unruly dust and, in the monsoon, they posed a serious threat to the commuting villagers. The count is lost of the number of people that have died of snake bites in the villages, particularly in the Western districts like Jhargram, Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore, Birbhum and East Midnapore, till 2011, as the victims could not be taken to the health centres on time. The only means of transport were rocky bullock carts. There were no bus services after sundown and, in the monsoon, the owners withdrew them fearing massive wear and tear. The Left Front government, which repeatedly prided itself for initiating massive rural development projects under the Panchayats and Rural Development Department, had constructed only 10,314 km roads in 10 years from 2001 as against 14,514 km since 2011. Because of the poor road connectivity, rural Bengal became grossly neglected and no meaningful development took place in the 34 years of Left Front rule.
After coming to power in 2011, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in close consultation with Subrata Mukherjee and other senior officials and engineers of the Panchayats and Rural Development Department laid maximum stress on the construction of rural roads. Over the past seven years, major changes are being witnessed in rural Bengal. Tourism and ecotourism are evolving in new ways due to the improved connectivity. The economic health of the villages has improved and the people are receiving their due of one square meal. The silent revolution that has taken place in rural Bengal has been more paced than a reel life story.
The striking feature of the newly constructed rural roads is its smoothness. If you are travelling at a high speed, in a well-maintained car, it is almost impossible to gauge the speed of the vehicle because of the evenness of the roads. Rural Bengal has become a paradise for drivers who enjoy long distance driving.
It is not only the construction of rural roads — the Panchayats and Rural Development Department has also laid emphasis on their maintenance. A maintenance policy has been framed and the roads will be maintained on a top priority basis. All rural roads that are five years old will be repaired and maintained under the scheme. A sum of Rs 1308 crore has been allotted for the scheme. This has helped the state finance department prepare the money for maintenance work. The maintenance policy has attracted the attention of the Centre and the Ministry of Rural Development has provided Rs 69 crore in its recognition. The Panchayats and Rural Development Department has been adopting novel methods for constructing the rural roads. Bengal is the first state to use jute in road construction. The National Jute Board has initiated the proposal and also extended technical assistance. Already 90 km roads have been built using jute and laying of another 500 km road is underway, where jute has also been used. A layer of jute at the rate of 724 gram per square metre is laid above the layer of soil, after which a layer of sand is laid. Taking a cue from Bengal, other states like Uttar Pradesh have also started using jute. Some rural roads in Murshidabad have also been constructed by using jute.
The additional usage of cold mix technology has expedited road construction. A cold mix binder is prepared by mixing bitumen emulsion with some additives. It is then mixed with stone chips. In case of a hot mix technology, 250 meters of road can be laid per day, while, by using this technique, around 400 meters of road can be built. The cold mix technology is also environment-friendly. The construction of roads by using steel slag has begun in some areas. The method is cost-effective. The department has also started using fly ash in road construction. Subrata Mukherjee, Minister for Panchayats and Rural Development, has categorically said that under no circumstances can quality be compromised.
Under the Gramin Sadak Yojana ( PMGSY), the sanctioned length of roads is 20,640 km and out of this 14,514 km has been completed. The sanctioned cost is Rs 11,192 crore. Under the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund ( RIDF), the length of the sanctioned road is 3,187 km and out of this, 2,287 km has been completed at a sanctioned cost of Rs 2,061 crore. Another sanctioned length of 9,536 km of old PMGSY roads will be upgraded and repaired taking the total length of roads in Bengal to 33,365 km and out of this 23,941 km has been completed. It may be mentioned that from March 2017 till date, the department has received sanctions for 8,820 km road from the Ministry of Rural Development – an all-time record.
Once the roads have been completed, rural Bengal will be well-connected with the district towns. Because of smooth roads, the number of school dropouts has also significantly reduced. Earlier, because of the pot-holed roads, children in many areas were unable to attend school during the three months of monsoon. After the monsoon ended, the parents began engaging the children in agriculture. As a result, many students lost their interest in studies and stopped attending school. But now, because of roads, the students can attend schools during the monsoon and this has reduced the number of dropouts. Also, the success of Sabuj Sathi in the rural areas largely depends on the condition of roads. As the roads have improved, the students can reach their schools on time using the cycles provided to them under the project. Also, the girls are able to return home before sundown during the winters. It is a major achievement and has drastically reduced the number of dropouts among female students. The accessibility of good roads has reduced the infant mortality and increased institutional delivery which has gone up to 95 per cent from the previous 69 per cent, when the Trinamool Congress government took over in 2011. Because of quality roads, the farmers can easily take their produce to the market and Kisan Mandis. The improved road connectivity has improved the economic condition of the villagers.
Another major achievement of the state government because of better rural roads is the boom of tourism in the districts. One of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's focus areas is tourism. In both south Bengal and north Bengal, district tourism is progressing massively. New spots have been identified to develop tourism.
For example, in Bakura, treehouses have been built – a completely new concept in south Bengal. The private tour operators are encouraging tourists to visit these spots by road. Roadside inns and hotels have come up in all the districts and the employment of the rural youth has also increased.
Subrata Mukherjee, state minister for Panchayats and Rural Development, said that plans have been made and target dates have been fixed for the construction of rural roads and, by and large, deadlines have also been met. "In the next couple of years, a sea of change will happen in rural Bengal and all the villages will have their road connectivity. A silent revolution has taken place and this will benefit the rural populace immensely," he assured.

Tarun Goswami

Tarun Goswami

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