Earlier during this fiscal year, the government accorded infrastructure status to the logistics sector. The objective of this move is to provide easy financing to the sector to promote its development, and in the long run help Indian exports become more competitive globally, benefiting from lower logistics costs. The implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), too, was expected to reduce the logistics costs by reducing the number of check posts at interstate borders. According to some estimates, logistics contributes nearly 15% to India’s gross domestic product (GDP). In January 2018, the Financial Times carried an article mentioning how GST has enabled Indian trucks to cover more distance each day, and how it has fuelled warehousing business in cities, where it wasn’t preferable prior to the implementation of GST.
According to 2014 World Bank estimates, Indian truckers spend only about 40% of their time driving their vehicle. The rest is wasted in stationary activities such as traffic jams, check posts, refuelling, repairs, rest, etc. This would have certainly improved with the development of highways in recent years and the implementation of GST. The same is evident from the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, where India improved its rank to 35 in 2016 from 54 in 2014. While all these recent developments in the transport and logistics sector deserve an applause, there is still a long way to go in improving the status of our road transportation system. According to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) website, about 65% of freight and 80% passenger traffic is carried by the roads. India has the second-largest road network in the world, spanning around 55 lakh kilometres. While India’s road length is impressive, highways constitute only about 2% of that. In fact, the country’s share of national highways is nearly half that of global average. It’s the same story for the average speed of traffic on Indian roads. Here are some practical suggestions that can be instrumental in aiding the traffic on Indian highways.
The NHAI introduced radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags—called FASTags—for electronic toll collection across national highways. However, most of the toll plazas have only one lane dedicated for FASTag users, which, more often than not, has the longest queue. In fact, most of the times, non-tag users also use the FASTag lane and defeat the entire purpose of electronic toll collection. There should be penal action against non-FASTag users who enter the FASTag lane. At the same time, at many toll plazas, the tag reader is unable to read the tag. In such an event, the toll attendant has to manually use a ‘gun’ to read the tag. This, too, adds to time and congestion at the toll plaza. Adding more dedicated tag lanes will surely encourage the adoption of tags and serve the purpose of easing traffic through the toll plazas.
Multiplicity of tags, too, hinders the adoption of e-tags. There should be one toll tag across all toll plazas in the country. A system can be easily put in place where toll deducted from one tag is transferred to the concerned toll operator. For example, residents of the Mumbai metro area need to have a separate tag (MEP toll tag) for various tolls across the city, including the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Moreover, the same cannot be topped up online with ease. The shortage of dedicated tag lanes and non-tag users entering tag lanes persists here as well.
Highways pass through a number of towns and cities, and that is where most of the improvement needs to be brought about. For instance, residents of Delhi NCR got a huge respite from traffic snarls when Delhi Noida Direct (DND) Flyway and Delhi Gurgaon Expressway tolls were done away with. The Maharashtra government, too, should take note of the massive jams at the Mumbai toll plazas and weigh the costs and benefits of the same. The road freight as well as commuters travelling on NH-48 and onwards to Navi Mumbai and JNPT (Jawaharlal Nehru Port) face a situation similar to what was in Delhi NCR at the time of tolls on DND and Gurgaon Expressway. While this is not to say that tolls should be done away with completely, but when there are situations where toll plazas hinder smooth and swift movement of traffic, these plazas need to be improved and the toll operator should be held responsible and penalised if no improvement is seen. Strict implementation of traffic rules, too, can help ease congestion on our national highways. The case in point being the Delhi Gurgaon Expressway in particular. At nearly all the entry points of this Expressway, road signs mention that two-wheelers and three-wheelers are not permitted. However, they still ply freely under the eyes of the traffic police stationed all along. Two-wheelers and three-wheelers plying on highways, where four-wheelers and heavy traffic move at high speeds, not only jeopardise themselves but also create a hazard for other traffic and slow down its movement. The similar is the case with most flyovers across the country, which explicitly mention that no heavy goods vehicles would be permitted on the flyovers, yet they ply freely on them.
While traffic signals promote safety on the road, they add to logistics costs as well. Many a times too many traffic signals on a short stretch of road hinder the movement of traffic rather than aiding it. City planners and police should take a careful re-look at the signals and see which all signals can be done away with. More free U-turns on roads, flyovers with free underpasses and free left turns can go a long way in easing traffic congestion and reducing travel times. There have been various proposals across metro cities to ban entry of heavy commercial traffic during day time. While this eases the life of city commuters, it does have an adverse impact on cost and time of transportation of goods. With such bans in place, it is also not an uncommon sight when toll operators permit a few vehicles to pass through the city during prohibited hours for a bribe.
Plans by the Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari to build a sea route between Vasai-Virar creek and JNPT and Mumbai Port Trust and JNPT are welcome. Such alternative modes of transport are the need of the hour. According to government estimates, it takes Rs 1.5 per unit of a certain quantity of goods to transport the items from one place to another by road, Rs 1 per unit to transport goods by railway, but it takes only 10-20 paisa if they are transported by sea/water. This can significantly bring down logistics costs. Not only will such plans ease and improve the life of city residents but at the same time will also ease freight movement. Similar alternative routes and dedicated freight routes should be planned around industrial tows and metros.
The Transport Corporation of India (TCI) and IIM Calcutta estimate road delays to cost India $21.3 billion annually. While the government is heading in the right direction of promoting alternative and multi-modal means of transport, these will take some time to get implemented and bear fruit. In the interim, respective state governments and city municipalities should be proactive and undertake quick-fix measures to ease traffic at their own levels and support the logistics sector.
Author is a corporate economist
Views are personal