World Bank’s Chief Economist Ejaz Ghani recently advocated for the large-scale infrastructure investment mentioning that Golden Quadrilateral project has given a massive boost to manufacturing activity and productivity in districts located within 10km of the network and improved allocative efficiency in India.

Leo Saldana, environmentalist and coordinator of the Environment Support Group, responds to Ghani’s article:

This fallacious argument has been promoted by the Bank world over with devastating results. But we won’t hear about that in this kind of an article, which appears to be written to pave the way for massive investment in road building, and road building alone.

No one is arguing against good roads. But the idea that this kind of wide carriageways are the modes of “adequate” infrastructure presupposes that there is no other way to industrialise and develop. As a consequence, local planning agencies heavily indoctrinated by the Bank’s thinking, believe (not rationalise) and promote massive expansion in highway networks. These also are lovely legacy projects for building political careers and fortunes, and the cost overruns are easily supplying tax monies And loan burdens serviced by the citizenry to advantage corrupt politics.

Across America, now China and in most countries that embraced this model, including India, cities linked by such patterns of road building have turned into suburbanised disaster zones. There was no incentive for compact and liveable cities, even when they were advanced as eminently viable options. Big is better it was proclaimed. The private vehicle, as a result, has become essential. And the consequences are disastrous, as can be experienced globally, especially around any million plus city.

What if we had thought of building industrial corridors around the thousands of Railway stations that India has, which are located near small and medium towns. These stations could easily be industrial hubs where they could receive a steady supply of labour and skills, from local towns. That way we could have energised the Development of hundreds of such small and medium towns, without disrupting permanently their organic growth prospects, and of their hinterland, that this road building does. And in that manner, we may not have had to go down this monstrously expensive multi-lane road building mania too.

With excellent automated logistical systems already available, moving resources to, and taking produce out, from industrial hubs, through our extensive rail network, would be possible. It would not have cost us the massive disruption of existing life, and living patterns, particularly of low-cost massive livelihood creators and sustainers -farming and pastoral, which I don¹t know if the Bank considers anymore are livelihood options still. These multi-lane corridors cause a pattern of development that is unsustainable and divisive, and also contribute substantially to climate change. If only economists cared to really comprehended all the impacts, they would notice.

Evidently, this article clearly does not at all speak for, or take into account, the extensive social and environmental costs that such road technologies produce. It¹s the same old eyewash exercise the Bank has done before – of pushing infrastructure that the Bank says is right for us, and that without any transparent and critical review. It did back then with dams. Now it¹s roads.

Recall the way in which the World Bank devastated the Almatti area of Karnataka by advancing the Upper KRISHNA dam. There was no looking for alternatives, even when several were available. Dam building was dogmatism from the West. No review follows. And so one can never say they were wrong. And that same dogmatic approach is now pushed to promote road building. I shudder to imagine the disruption that such roads will cause in the North East and the Himalayan terrain, not to speak of thickly forested central India, the Western Ghats and the sensitive coastal areas.

What’s next? A massive WB loan package for road building in India? Given what Jaitely has announced – Bharatmala? Last I read about the economic viability of many road projects promoted as part of the Golden Quadrilateral, most developers had folded.

If India has to have a long shot at securing its future, it’s best not to swallow – hook, line and sinker, what is being dished out in such soppy articles. A Mala is used to venerate on auspicious and celebratory occasions. And it is also used to venerate someone who has passed on.

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