India is not Calcutta and Bombay. India lives in her seven hundred thousand villages.

—Mahatma Gandhi

Villages are the backbone of India. Villages play an important role in the socio-economic and human resource development of the nation. As per the 2011 Census, nearly 68% of the Indian population lives in the villages. Traditionally, agriculture has been the main occupation and source of income in the rural areas and nearly 40% of our nation’s workforce is engaged in agriculture. Despite being an important factor in the national development, the rural areas lag behind in basic infrastructure like roads, transport, communication and electricity. A better rural infrastructure has primarily two effects—promotion of economic growth and decline in the occurrence of poverty. Though the development in technology and introduction of new energy sources in the recent years have brought about significant changes in communication, irrigation, power supply etc., the rural road connectivity is still a challenging task for accomplishment and a big dream for the rural population.

Roadways are the most elastic means for connectivity as they can reach the extreme ends of the nation. The road network can connect metros with the remote villages and towns with State capitals. They serve as a lifeline for the road transportation in our country. Historically, people in the Indian subcontinent were familiar with the construction of road network. The earliest evidence of the road construction can be traced to the sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The excavations at the Indus valley sites give us information about the existence of road network during the period, which were well constructed and used for connecting villages to towns, ports, highways and other places in the civilisation. The roads served as a backbone of the trade and transportation between industrial centres and other important places during the period. There were significant developments in the road network during the medieval period and British period as well. As per the Road Statistics of India report prepared by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, India has the second largest road network in the world next to the USA covering nearly 5 lakh kilometres. The report also says that the rural network, which includes the village roads and the district roads, covers more than 60% of the road network in India. Though the National Highways and State Highways are serving as a medium of connectivity between the major cities and State capitals, they cover only 40% of the road network in India.

Rural roads are one of the basic infrastructure of the rural areas and play a vital role in socio-economic development of rural community. Roads contribute significantly to the rural development by connecting them with the markets, cities, towns and industrial centres, and providing a better access to goods and services located in the nearby areas. Roads are the backbone of the rural infrastructure since they provide access to the goods produced in the rural areas and serve as an important means of connectivity. Even though the rural roads constitute a major portion of the national road network, quality and structure of the rural roads are not good when compared to the urban roads. The rural roads are not all-weather roads and cannot sustain the extreme climatic conditions like heavy rainfall and floods, which affect the quality of life of the people living there.

In the initial years of the post-Independence period, the development of roads was in the hands of the States and did not see much growth and expansion. The development of road network became a matter of national importance from the 5th Five-Year Plan where the rural road development became a part of Minimum Needs Programme (MNP). The rural road development plan under MNP proposed to link up all villages with a population of 1,500 or more with all-weather
roads and to connect with roads all the remaining villages with a population of 1,500 and above and 50% of the total number of villages in the population group of 1,000 to 1,500 by the year 1990. This was the first major initiative towards the development of the rural road network. This programme brought in significant development in the rural road structure and became a base for the road development schemes introduced in the later years.

In the year 2000, the Union Government launched a massive programme called Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY)for the development of rural roads. The core objective of the programme was to provide connectivity to unconnected habitations as a part of rural development and poverty reduction programme. This was a 100% Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS) with the objective to provide connectivity, by way of all-weather roads, to the eligible unconnected habitations in the rural areas with a population of 500 persons and above in the plain areas. This scheme also proposed to follow cluster approach for providing connectivity in the hill, mountain and border areas that have the above-
mentioned population. The roads developed under the PMGSY were classified into two types—main core network and other rural roads. The core network has to provide main connectivity to the nearby towns, highways, markets and other important places of social and economic importance in the rural areas. All other roads developed in an area will be interconnected with this core network. Since the core network roads connect to the State and National Highways, there can be a quicker transportation of the agricultural and other goods produced in the rural areas to the nearby markets and faraway places. The State Governments were given the responsibility to identify the nodal agencies like Public Works Department (PWD) or district administration to take care of identifying the suitable areas that need the road connectivity and to carry out the road development.

Earlier, the government and other procuring agencies, which were handling the procurement of agricultural and other products from rural areas, had to set up additional facility for the storage and transportation, since the quality of rural roads was not all-weather supporting. The absence of all-weather connectivity affected the transporting of the perishable goods like fruits and vegetables seriously. The PMGSY scheme solved such transportation and logistics-related issues in the country since the roads developed under the scheme are all-weather support roads with necessary culverts and cross-drainage structures, which are operable throughout the year. Provision of better rural roads increased mobility of men and materials thus facilitating the economic growth. The scheme also includes a separate plan for quality process where the States provide special fund for the maintenance of the rural roads and take care of the defects periodically to ensure that the rural roads are in the accessible condition throughout the year.

The rural road development scheme along with the rural employment scheme, introduced in India, has been recognised by various international agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and has received technical and financial support from them. The World Bank has supported the PMGSY scheme by providing loan assistance to support the road construction in the economically weaker States and hilly areas. The engagement with the World Bank has also helped to develop a better system to identify the core network, prioritising the road selection, engaging the local bodies in the rural road development and maintenance of the infrastructure. The scheme brought about a different approach in the rural road development like construction of environment friendly roads by utilising the waste plastic for building the water resistant roads, and usage of non-conventional materials like fly ash, iron and copper slag for constructing rural roads. The Central Government signed a loan agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2017 to raise funds for the road construction in the States like Assam, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. This loan will be used for the construction of all-weather roads with reduced cost by utilisation of alternate materials like industrial and construction waste with less impact on nature. The roads will be designed in such a way to withstand the climatic risks with features like better drainage, curvatures etc.

Rural connectivity is the key component of rural development and poverty alleviation in India. The Asian Development Bank’s study on ‘Impact of Rural Roads on Poverty Reduction—A Case Study’ has stated that rural roads are the important factor enabling conditions for livelihood development for people in rural areas. Thanks to the schemes like PMGSY and Bharat Nirman, due to which the lifestyle of the people in hilly and remote areas especially in the northeastern states has changed significantly. The rural road connectivity is not just a transportation provider, but has also changed the lifestyle of the poor and very poor by enabling them better access to state services and improved provision of services to the villages, and opportunities in alternative livelihood income stream. These, in turn, assist in reducing poverty and lead over all social development.             

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