(Cross-posted from the Hindu Business Line, April 11th 2017.)
India needs its roads. Our road network is essential to the free flow of goods and people across the country and connects rural villages to the rest of the nation. India’s roads, together with the railways, make us one. The question that should be asked, however, is how many roads does India need? It is obvious that there is an upper limit to the area that any nation can allocate to its road network. Aside from the fact that building roads is expensive, the opportunity cost must also be considered; the land given over to building a road can now no longer be used for other purposes. There are other factors to consider as well. Building a road requires contiguous stretches of land, and in a country like India where there is a mixture of public and private property, land acquisition has its own financial and political costs.
Road building also has long-term ramifications, especially on the environment and ecology. Road construction necessitates the altering of ecosystems; mining of construction materials and the clearing of the road’s planned alignment result in the cutting of trees and the disposal of excavated rock and debris.
While ecosystem alteration itself can have persistent impacts, the mere presence of a road also has long-term effects, modifying environmental variables such as the groundwater recharge rate, the local biodiversity, and even the local temperature. They also make previously wild areas more accessible, increasing incidences of poaching and illegal timber felling. And once we factor in traffic movement, the number and severity of impacts only increases. Wild animals using roads are often hit by vehicles, commonly being injured or killed. Over time, entire animal populations may start avoiding roads, restricting their access to food, water, and shelter, and setting them on the path to local extinction.
For all the pros of building roads, there are also clear cons. This is true across the world, but is felt especially hard in India, where we face the unique circumstance of having both a highly dense human population, as well as high densities of biodiversity in specific regions. While people need roads, they are also dependent on ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water, which originate from the same wild areas being damaged by roads.
This should not be an either-or situation. Indians require both roads and intact ecosystems, and hampering the development or function of one for the sake of the other will not benefit the nation. To maximise the benefits of roads and minimise their impacts, far more time and effort should be spent on determining exactly where roads should be built.
A spatial study by Laurance et al (‘A Global Strategy for Road Building’; Nature, 2014) attempts this at the global scale by comparing the potential impacts of roads on the environment against their benefits to agricultural productivity. In India, studies of this sort, taking into account the requirements of the nation, would be extremely valuable, as they enable planners to clearly assess the pros and cons of road construction before any action is taken.
In those cases where it is deemed necessary to construct new roads that may have adverse impacts on the environment, decision-makers must follow the mitigation hierarchy. This is ideally a transparent step-wise process whereby the impacts of any given road on the environment are assessed, and efforts are made to prevent or alleviate them. Identifying those impacts that can be avoided or minimised, and then mitigating or compensating for those that cannot, would go a long way toward preserving ecosystem services, while also allowing for road development.
Unfortunately, since the political imperative is to build more roads faster, agencies responsible for road construction have little time or effort to allocate toward long-term planning. Recent proposals to build roads through formerly inviolate forested areas or prime wildlife habitat are short-sighted and bring to mind the era of big dams, whose construction resulted in disastrous impacts on human communities and the environment which far outweighed the over-hyped benefits these dams were built to provide.
However, politicians believe that the promise of building roads attracts votes, as can be seen from the political discourse at all levels; Members of Legislative Assemblies promise small villages road connections to the nearest towns while Central Government Ministers claim that roads will be constructed at the rate of 40km/day across the entire country. As they also tend to think in the short term, chained to the election cycle as they are, the effectiveness of political advocacy on this matter seems self-limiting.
The task thus falls to India’s civil society, India’s judiciary, and to the development banks that fund road projects, to ensure that the costs and benefits of proposed roads are well thought through before implementation. Those government agencies and private agencies responsible for road construction can help by making proposed road alignments available for public debate and discussion.
Eliciting constructive feedback from the public — including wildlife and environmental experts — at the planning stage will help prevent delays and the resulting escalations in costs due to legal challenges or protests during the actual construction phase. It is only by wisely planning for the future that we will be able to ensure that India has a world-class road network that takes into account the needs of all its citizens.
[ This article was commissioned by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania and is also available on their blog. ]