Column: Scratching the surface

Written by Mahesh Vyas | Updated: Feb 20 2014, 08:34am hrs
Railways and roadways are the two most important arms of infrastructure of any state. Greater connectivity and the consequently greater mobility of goods and services enable prosperity.

Indias railway density is about 20 km of railway tracks per thousand square km of area. West Bengal and Punjab are the top two states in terms of railway density with a density of 44 km and 42 km, respectively. Railway density is nearly twice the national average in Bihar and Uttar Pradeshthe next two states in the pecking order. It is the lowest in Jammu & Kashmir, in the hilly states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and in the largely forested Chhattisgarh. Kerala tops all major states in terms of density of roads. At 5,178 km, its road length per thousand square km of area is well over four times the national average of 1,174 km. West Bengal and Assam are the other two states with a high density of road network. States with low road density are Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

While railways is energy-efficient and better suited for long-distance transportation, roads are arguably better suited for relatively shorter distances. The two are also substitutes. It, therefore, makes sense to consider the two together. And to ensure comparability, we normalise this by the geographical area of the state. So, in terms of railway and road length per thousand square km of area, the top three states are Kerala, West Bengal and Assam, in that order. Interestingly, none of these are successful industrial states. Kerala tops because of its small size. Assam has a high density of transport infrastructure as it provides the crucial link to the rest of India for all other north-eastern states. But the infrastructure is largely unsurfaced and, therefore, of poor quality, and it is also rendered so useless by the frequent breakdown of law and order that the remaining states are building new roads to avoid entering Assam on their way to the rest of the country.

In the ranking of 20 larger states on the basis of rail and road length per unit area, Tamil Nadu ranks seventh, Maharashtra ranks tenth and Gujarat is almost at the bottom of the stack at fifteenth.

This is rather counter-intuitive. Possibly, Tamil Nadu ranks better because it is largely evenly urban while eastern Maharashtra is mostly forested and western Gujarat is essentially barren. It makes sense to, therefore, compare the length of railway tracks and roads to population and not merely area. But while a comparison against population improves the ranking of Maharashtra to the eighth position, it worsens that of Tamil Nadu to the twelfth position and keeps Gujarat at fifteenth. So, Gujarat is genuinely poor in terms of availability of the basic infrastructure for transportation.

A composite ranking of 20 large states by the total length of railway tracks and roads per square km of area and per population yields the following results.

Gujarat and Haryana surprise us by their poor ranks in terms of this basic infrastructure of railway track and road length. Only Madhya Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand are worse off than them. All three states are largely less inhabited and covered by forests. The poor reach of railways and roads in these three states is, therefore, partly understandable. Only partly, because Jharkhands large natural resources and Madhya Pradeshs central location in India gives them reasons to reap benefits of their natural advantages by setting up better transport facilities. But Gujarat and Haryana turning out to be worse than Bihar, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is the biggest surprise in this ranking. Haryanas proximity to Delhi and Gujarats proximity to Mumbai have created fairly busy transportation corridors. The Delhi-Jaipur corridor cuts across Haryana and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor has been an old, busy industrial corridor. But these advantages have evidently not been able to offset the poor transport facilities in the rest of Gujarat and Haryana. Besides the busy industrial corridor in southern Gujarat, its large number of sea ports would have warranted a more dense surface transport network. But the state has failed on this count.

The problem of Gujarats inadequate surface transport infrastructure has possibly been given little attention by the government in the last decade. During the decade ended 2010-11, road length in the state grew only at the rate of 1.3% per annum, while the length of roads in India grew by a handsome 4.5% per annum. This poor relative performance was not the case in the earlier decades. In the 1990s, while roads in India grew at 2% per annum, Gujarats roads grew at 5.4%. And in the 1980s, they grew by 3.4% per annum while the national growth was lower at 3% per annum.

Assam, Kerala and Orissa are the top three states in terms of this composite ranking of transport infrastructure. All these states fail on quality. Less than 16% of Assams roads are surfaced. In Orissa, this ratio is 23% and even in Kerala only a little more than half of the roads are surfaced. West Bengal ranks fourth, but even here, less than 40% of the roads are surfaced. Karnataka ranks fifth and less than two-thirds of the roads are surfaced.

Punjab has the best combination of quantity and quality of transport infrastructure. First, its rail density is high at 42 km per square km of area. Second, 91% of its roads are surfaced. It boasts of the highest proportion of surfaced roads among all major states. This is in spite of the fact that over 70% of its roads are rural roads. Third, its overall railway tracks and roadways density ranks fairly high at 4 out of 20.

Gujarat and Haryana have lesser roads, but in both cases a little over 90% of these are surfaced. This explains our anecdotal understanding of the good roads in these states. But, evidently, these dont go too far.

Combining rail-road density and the quality of roads into one composite quantitative index would necessarily involve subjectivity in the weights that would need to be assigned to quantity and quality. But if we were to assign them equal weight, Punjab tops the major states. And it is followed by Maharashtra, which ranks eighth in terms of the railway track and road length per unit area and population. But barring Punjab, all the other states above it have a much lesser share of surfaced roads. In Maharashtra, 83% of the roads are surfaced. Tamil Nadu would be a close third with 82% roads being surfaced. If Gujarat had not lost its last decade in slow growth of roads, it would have been in the same league as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

(All data sourced from statesofindia.cmie.com)

The author is CEO & managing director, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy P Ltd