Road Bound Logistics in India: Need for a Better ‘Road Culture’

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
Page No.: 
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Road logistics remain the preferred medium of transport of goods across India besides forming the backbone of tactical and strategic level mobilisation
Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu (Retd)
Thursday, April 5, 2018

Road infrastructure forms one of the most important elements of military logistics both during peace and war. Development of road network in sync with our strategic requirements is not only an asset for the armed forces but also gives a new dimension to economic development in some of the neglected areas. In order to access a remote area which is important from the military point of view, road connectivity is the immediate upgradation from an Animal Transport (AT) track that the army explores. Upgradation of such tracks to roads of varying classification is an ongoing process which then demonstrates the size of force levels that can be sustained on such Axis/es. Therefore it is imperative to create, maintain and utilise road infrastructure in most efficient and effective manner contributing to both strategic and economic capacity building for the country.

India is often compared to Europe in terms of size where some of our states are bigger than a large number of European countries. We have vast diversity in culture, economic development amongst various states and even regions within the states. Urban - rural divide in terms of road infrastructure is too stark even within some of the states. It is difficult to believe sitting in a state capital like Lucknow that the nearest metalled road for some villages of the same state is a few kilometres from the village. Connectivity in such areas is practically non-existent. In such an environment, it is difficult to grade Indian road borne logistics including infrastructure in one category.

Efficient road movement in a country as vast as India is dependent on two important factors. One is the physical infrastructure which includes the network of roads, highways, the quality of roads, operability in all weather and related facilities of repair and recovery along the highways. Second is the prevalence of enabling regulations, enforcement of rules and use of technology which facilitates faster movement, tracking of vehicles or consignments resulting in an efficient logistic system. Innovative use of IT infrastructure can transform road bound movement.

In order to examine the road bound logistics in India it is pertinent to peep into the other aspects of logistics including multimodal mix of mass transport and state of Indian logistics in comparative terms. As per the World Bank estimates, waterways are the most economical means of mass movement of goods compared to rail, road or air. As per the same report, cost of moving one MT of goods by waterways in India is Rs 119 compared to Rs 141 by rail and Rs 228 by road. Movement by air is obviously much more expensive compared to other three means of transport. Unfortunately, India moves 60 percent of goods by road, 30 percent by rail and only 8 percent by waterways compared to China which transports only 30 percent goods by road, 23 percent by rail and 46 percent by waterways. To further amplify this, it is pertinent to note that due to poor infrastructure, complicated laws, poor enforcement and faulty multi modal mix, India incurs almost 13% of her GDP as cost of logistics which is one of the highest in the world.

Notwithstanding the above shortcomings, India has improved her ranking in the World Bank Report of 2016 as compared to the 2014 report. As per 2016 report, India’s LPI (Logistic Performance Index) ranking is 35 compared to 54 in 2014, an improvement of 19 places with Germany leading at No 1 position. The above outcome is a result of concerted efforts by successive governments to develop infrastructure in general and specially the road infrastructure besides introduce enabling regulations such as Goods and Services Tax (GST) which have enhanced efficiency by saving time and fuel due to free inter-state movement of  vehicles carrying goods . It is a pleasant sight to see no vehicles lined up on inter-state borders, as a result the vehicles cover almost double the distance in a day thus halving the travel time.

Due to limited existence of waterways and not so efficient railways in India, road transport is the principal mode of transport of mass movement of goods. Therefore, it is important to review the state of road infrastructure and its contribution to logistics and the national economy. While there  is a requirement to put in effort to make other means of transport such as rail and waterways more efficient and attractive, roads and highways will need continued, if not accelerated attention, to cope with ever increasing demand for movement of personnel and material.

India has a fairly well laid out network of national highways, state highways and other roads. As of March 2018, India has a road network of 6,603,293 kms (4,103,096 miles) which is the second largest road network in the world. At 1.70 kms of road per square kilometre of area, road density in India is higher than Japan (0.91), USA (0.67), China (0.46), Brazil (0.18) or Russia (0.08). While the length of roads in the country is appreciable, the quality of roads has been a matter of concern. The length of national highways has increased from 70,934 kms in 2010-11 to 1,01,011 kms in 2015-16. According to 2009 estimates by Goldman Sachs, India would need to invest $1.7 trillion in infrastructure including roads by 2020 to meet her economic needs. A lot of effort has been put in by successive governments  to improve highways, including expressways on important routes.

In case we now ask ourselves a question whether our road infrastructure is adequate to meet our present day strategic and economic development requirements, it does not need a research to state the obvious answer which is –“No” -  we don’t have enough road infrastructure. At the same time we need to ask ourselves whether we as citizens are helping the country in getting the best out of the existing road infrastructure. The answer is again “No”.

In a country which is terribly short of resources for development of infrastructure, be it in the field of road, rail, ports, healthcare, education or another sphere, it is not understood as to how, as citizens and society in general, are we so indifferent to utilisation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. Do we utilise our precious infrastructure with a sense of responsibility and ownership? To analyse this aspect, I shall restrict myself to road infrastructure.

We have some of the best highways in the world, there are six to eight lane double carriage motorways with absolutely smooth surfaces, drains on the sides to pull out rain water, yet a lot more needs to be done by the road users and the residents of the cities and towns which are located along the highways.

While driving on popular and widely utilised Delhi-Jaipur or Delhi-Chandigarh highways, it is a sight to experience, two and at times three massive logistics lorries racing against each other at a speed ranging between 45-50 Kms per hour  covering  entire width of the road. A car following them is left to sneak in through the gaps between these Lorries to overtake them. Resultantly, we must be one of the few countries in the world which follows no uniform rule from which side to overtake. Hence, no vehicle user knows which the high speed lane on our highways is. Another character trait of Indian drivers is to resist being overtaken by another vehicle.  Instead of facilitating overtaking they speed up their vehicles to prevent being overtaken. This results in avoidable congestion on the road, extra travel time and most importantly a potential danger for accidents to happen.

Rainwater drains are created on both sides of the road at a substantial cost which have been filled by the locals with garbage and broken at places to facilitate getting off the highway at unauthorised places. As we go through towns, we find not only big trucks parked on the national highway, but mechanics carrying out repairs too. It is difficult to believe that such blatant violations can take place without the connivance of the law enforcing agencies. Removal of broken down or accident vehicles in another weak point. There is no effective system of evacuation, hence it will be hours before these vehicles are recovered and removed thus causing traffic jams and waste of precious time and resources. Pitfalls of such actions are obvious. We also see the metalled fencing being dismantled to make way for free cross movement of human beings and at times vehicles.

In order to bypass congested towns or existing crowded highways, the authorities construct bye-pass roads or fresh alignment of the highways. It is unfortunate that the shops, eateries (dhabas) etc. come up on the bye-passes faster than the completion of the road thus resulting in congestion again. We need to create rest areas which should have all facilities including eateries, fuel, repair, motels etc. Toll plazas instead of being facilitators are a big impediment and bottleneck to smooth and speedy flow of traffic, thus adding to pollution and cost of movement. There are technologies which can help us speed up the process of toll collection.

Similarly we find slow moving tractors moving from the opposite direction on a double carriage highway endangering the vehicles moving at speed on their side of the road. Some villagers consider the highway passing through their village as their local road and construct unmarked speed breakers without caring for the rule of law.

I have listed some of the many unauthorised activities which take place on our highways and are impediments in realising the full potential of the physical infrastructure developed by the administration. This list of the activities is by no means exhaustive. Poor enforcement neutralises the effort of physical road construction to a great extent.

Reasons for decay of the roads as a mode of logistics are endless. I am sure that those people who form part of various agencies involved in road construction, tax authorities and the police can identify many more causes which contribute to inefficient road movement.

Strategic Significance

Roads form the backbone of strategic and tactical level mobilisation besides other means of transport such as rail, air and sea. In fact mobilisation by road is the mode of immediate response for the Armed Forces specially the Army, hence the necessity to not only have an elaborate network of roads but also a culture of road move efficiency. There is a need to plan economic development with a strategic outlook and vice versa for optimum use of developmental resources. Multi modal transport hubs which integrate both economic development and military mobilisation are need of the hour. Multiple modes available in a hub will also ensure redundancy. Adopting an integrated approach to transportation using the most economical and efficient mode of transport will ensure a better response to logistics.

Way Forward

In an aspirational India where every citizen wishes to upgrade his quality of life to a next higher level, we need to adopt a multipronged approach towards road infrastructure development both in terms of physical construction of roads as also change in attitudes of the citizens. It will come about by involvement of citizens and communities led by the civil administration. We need to ensure that all citizens have stakes in development and follow rule of law. Good deeds must be rewarded and violators punished promptly.

Indians are pioneers in developing innovative technology solutions for the entire world. We need to infuse technology to monitor our facilities and hold violators and law enforcing personnel accountable. Helplessness on the part of law enforcing agencies should not be accepted as an excuse for inefficiency. At times we get the impression that decision makers are not interested in infusion of technology because it takes away their discretionary powers and minimises scope for corruption.

To conclude it can be stated that while the governments should continue to create as many roads, highways and expressways as possible, there is an urgent need to involve the citizens and generate synergy between various government agencies to ensure that we get maximum benefits out of physical road infrastructure. In case we facilitate smooth and efficient road movement, the contribution to our economy would be substantial. I am certain once we reverse the attitude of ‘indifference’ to ‘involvement and ownership’ with respect to national property and infrastructure the net beneficiaries will be the citizens of this country. Time has come for involvement, commitment and ownership to make this country a great economic power through efficient road bound logistics.


Military Affairs