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​Infra Vaani: India@75 Needs to Boost its Urban Mobility to Get Onto Progress Path | Part 3

By: Akhileshwar Sahay


Last Updated: August 28, 2022, 12:49 IST

New Delhi, India

Gujarat, with the country’s busiest non-major private ports Mundra and Pipavav, is the real success story. (Twitter)

Gujarat, with the country’s busiest non-major private ports Mundra and Pipavav, is the real success story. (Twitter)

India today has emerged as the world's third-largest aviation market, behind the US and China, and is the fastest-growing aviation market of the world

infra vaani
In Infra Vaani, noted infra expert Akhileshwar Sahay dissects infrastructural challenges of Indian cities and offers solutions. In a three-part series this week, he looks at India@75. Part 3 looks at highways, roadways, railways, airway, ports and Metro.

This is the final part of the three-part series on India’s infrastructure @75 to @100.

And it is in the backdrop of two audacious agendas of Prime Minister Modi — one, India has to emerge as a developed country with $40-trillion economy by 1947. Two, it has to achieve Net Zero target by 2070, still better 2050.

Just to achieve Net Zero by 2070, as per a just-released report of Cambridge Econometrics for High-Level Policy Commission on Getting Asia to Net Zero, the country needs to invest $10-trillion dollar on the pursuit that will give a throw forward push to the Indian economy by 4.7% or $376 billion by 2036 and 15 million additional jobs by 2047.

And if the country has to become a developed nation by 2047, it will need transformation in every aspect of infrastructure, both physical and social, both of which I have covered in the first two parts and the one I am covering in this part or the one I have not been able to cover as I have run out of words liberally allowed by my editor.

For transformative change to become a “world-beater” and a “developed economy”, major revolution is needed is in our human stock in two key aspects:

First, is a transformative revolution in the quality of education — primary, secondary and graduation, post- graduations, research, medical, engineering or humanities — a country where a government department peon gets more salary than and those paid to our IT graduates churning billions of dollar software exports by IT majors or a PhD turning up for a sweeper’s job in Indian Railways is not the way to make India human resources “world-beater”. While we have to make 100% Indians literate, we need to transform higher education and simultaneously reskill our millions unemployable educated.

Second, we need a revolution in the health sector. A developed India needs to be healthy. We have come a long way since the extremely poor health infrastructure at Independence, but how can India become developed with less than 2% of annual budget of the Centre and states spent on health, and where three-fourth expenditure is out of pocket, which annually throws millions back in poverty, just because of this out-of-pocket expenses. We have taken a great leap forward in health since Independence, but are still scratching the surface. It is time to first increase health expenditure to 5% by 2025 and 10% by 2030 to reap the benefits at India@100.

Having said it, here is my prescription for the sectors which will propel India to the fast-track growth trajectory.


If in the entire spectrum of country’s infrastructure development, I have to single out one success story, my vote will go to the road and highways.

At the time of Independence, railways were the lifeline of the nation. It accounted for 90% passengers and 80% freight traffic.

In 2022, the story is reversed – 80% freight and 90% passengers move by road and highways.

Caveat, often parroted data that railways carry 35% of freight, is two-decade old from an RITEs survey. The long-distance landscape has changed completely thereafter.

How has it happened?

The calculus is simple. In 75 years, roads grew 16 times between 1947 and 2021, from 0.4 million km to 6.4 million km to become the world’s second largest network after America.

But the road and highway rejuvenation success story are of recent origin. For decades, moving in slow lane, poor roads were testament to India’s creaky infrastructure that impeded growth.

Then it suddenly changed.

I begin with national highways. They carry a bulk of traffic, although they are relatively a fraction of the total network.

Between 1947 and 1997, the national highway construction grew at a snail’s pace from 23,000 km to 34,000 km. Then came Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his now famous Golden Quadrilateral Program that commenced in 1999 to link four major metros with a network of four-lane highways. The program was completed in 2012.

Also in 2000, Vajpayee kicked off rural roads project under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana to provide all-weather road connectivity in rural areas. As per the PIB data, “PMGSY, since its inception in 2000, has been able to provide connectivity to 1,52,124 habitations (85.37% against 1,78,184 eligible habitations).”.

As it happened, the rate of construction of rural roads reached an all-time high of 133 km/day in 2016-17, the year in which 48000 km of rural roads were constructed under PMGSY.

Clearly, it has been a success story.

Also, in 2001, the country’s first expressway, Pune-Mumbai expressway, was completed. It was joined soon by Jaipur-Krishnagar and Vadodara-Ahmedabad expressways.

And the country has not looked back since then.

Currently, India has close to 3,000-km access-controlled expressways and 20 more are under fast paced construction. The country’s longest expressway is 341-km Puravanchal Expressway, whereas the Delhi-Meerut Expressway with 14 lanes is the widest expressway.

Back to national highways. With the completion of the Golden Quadrilateral, by 2012, India had 70,000-km national highways.

After Vajpayee, the progress of highway construction slowed down under UPA years (particularly in second term) due to issues related to model concession agreement, lack of financial closure of PPP projects, delays in land acquisitions, bureaucratic red tapism, and political slugfests.

The highway sector again grew at brisk rate in eight years of the present NDA regime, with the pace of construction of National Highways increasing thrice — from 12 km/day in 2014-15 to 37 km/day in 2020-21. The total length of national highways during the period is up 60% — from about 91,000 km in 2014 to 1.5 lakh km at present.

The target of construction of national highways got more audacious in the FY2023 budget with the target of 25,000 km, meaning 70 km per day.

For me, the biggest roads and highways success story of the Modi government has been in the past five years. The construction of 3,595 km of border roads at a cost of Rs 20,767 crore, including 2,088.57 km along China and 1,336.09 km along Pakistan.

India is fast racing to a stage where the grid of national highways connects practically every city, and most villages are connected with all-weather roads.

But there are three key issues with the sector:

One, the road sector also suffers from a deep malaise of poor quality. India’s performance on pace of building of highways matches China, but it scores poorly on quality.

Two, roads and highway sector particularly state, district, city and rural roads are characterised by poor maintenance, graft and rent-seeking.

Three, state-owned NHAI is in debt trap. Its debt soared from Rs 40,000 crore in 2014 to Rs 1.78 lakh crore in 2019 and unsustainable Rs 3.49 lakh crore on March 31, 2022. Annual debt servicing is now closer to accumulated debt in 2014. It is time to find sustainable solutions to fund the sectoral growth.

Four, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of highways, the fossil fuel guzzler sector, which is the biggest enemy of Net Zero by 2070. And as we will see in the next section it has happened at the cost of railways, the most environmentally friendly solution to the problem of transport.


In 1947, railways were the lifeline of the nation. In some ways, they still are. Although it has consistently been losing freight to roads and highway and passengers to both road and air.

Railway in the country was the biggest cross-country infrastructure gift of the British. At 64,000 km route length, IR has merely added 1,000 km route in 75 years.

The Indian railway system ran freight and passenger systems rather well. It also incrementally improved and improvised with time, but the sectoral growth post-independence was stymied.

But let me begin with a few success stories:

One, uni-gauge project, what the IR inherited was a mixed gauge network – broad gauge, meter gauge and narrow gauge. It had a huge transhipment cost. Today, it is largely a unified BG system.

Two, near complete electrification, resulting in reduced fuel cost and much lesser carbon footprint.

Three, success of the partnership model — Konkan Railway, Mumbai suburban expansion from Mankhurd to Panvel and few early freight lines by RVNL are success stories.

Four, the success of carved out PSUs, particularly CONCOR and IRCTC.

Fifth, conversion of ICF from producer of “Killer Coaches” to producer of “Vande Bharat” trains that has dared the Modi government to dream of 75 Vande Bharat trains.

Sixth, despite all hindrances in its path, it still is amongst globally most successful railway systems.

I can go on.

The IR systems also suffer from serious maladies:

Firstly, from day zero, IR became the jagir of minister in-charge and once the coalition era began at the centre, it was gifted as dahej to the most raucous coalition partner.

Second, the IR became the worst victim of populist freebies, resultantly passenger services ran into losses and freight was subsidised. A transparent system of freebies compensation to IR was never developed.

Third, whether needed or not, IR was made ‘employment bureau’. The result is a bloated, bottom-heavy organization and 21st century IR, run with 20th century technology and 19th century manpower.

Fourth, IR not only bears staff, pension, maintenance, and operations cost, but also capex of new projects, capacity expansion, modernization and rolling stock acquisition. Worse, IR, till very recently, was forced to pay dividends on the money lent by the exchequer.

Fifth, mandarins of Rail Bhawan routinely refused to heed to sane advice of most reports commissioned by them, and remained blissfully in denial of what ailed the IR. This was the fate of most of reports from Robertson Committee Report (1903) to Dr. Anil Kakodkar High Powered Committee report on safety (2012).

Seventh, only two reports survived the IR axe — both under the present NDA – One Man E. Sreedharan Committee Report (to which yours truly was co-opted) and Bibek Debroy Committee Report.

I can go on.

Better, I stop here. All which ails the IR and solution thereof are well documented in Sreedharan and Debroy committees and what is missing can be distilled from earlier reports.

Where now?

It is again time to look east. In 1947, India was far ahead of China. Till the 1990s, there was parity. Then China fast pedalled.

China today has around 1,41,400 km of rail lines, two-and-a-half times that of India. It includes 36,000 km of high-speed rail lines constructed in mere fifteen years.

China now is expanding rail network to 2,00,000 km by 2035, of which 70,000 km will be high speed network.

And what an audacious plan it is!

It will lead to 33.3% increase in China’s current railway network with high-speed rail lines growth of 133%,connecting all cities with two lakh population to the national rail network and cities with half a million-population connected to the high-speed network.

It is a wake-up call for India.

If India has to meet aspirations of Indians@100, if it has to cut logistics cost to half and fast-track the journey to Net Zero @2070, in the Amrit Kaal, the country must transform its railroad to China way and move away from the obsession of making world records in highways construction.


India today has emerged as the world’s third-largest aviation market, behind the US and China, and is the fastest-growing aviation market of the world.

But how have we reached there?

One, the history of aviation in India is testament to what an audacious dream of one man can achieve for the nation. He always saw ‘beyond the last blue mountain’ and his name was JRD Tata.

Two, it all began with the first flight of airmail cargo carrier from Karachi to Mumbai in 1932, with JRD, India’s first licensed pilot on the pilot seat.

Three, the progression of cargo airlines to passenger airline was swift. In 1938, the carrier, with new name Tata Airlines had taken wings, flying to domestic destinations.

Four, in 1953, Prime Minister Nehru nationalised the aviation industry that included two Tata Airlines and many small carriers. Thereafter, no private player was allowed till 1993.

Five, 1994 was the watershed year when India deregulated aviation sector again that allowed entry of scheduled private airlines.

Six, all early private airlines East & West, Damania, Modi Luft, Jet Airways, Sahara Airlines, King Fisher private airlines either got merged or went bankrupt.

But they led the foundation today’s aviation Industry. This laid the groundwork for the current Indian aviation industry.

Seven, next came the boom in the 21st century when the government-held Indian Airlines and Air India started ceding ground to low-cost carriers that challenged the legacy carriers with low-price fairs, giving millions the opportunity to fly.

Notably, low-cost airlines that have survived and thrived at the cost of full-cost carriers are IndiGo, SpiceJet, GoAir and AirAsia India, who currently have 75% market share of the domestic market.

Cut to July 2022. Indigo, with 55% domestic market share, is the leader of the pack, with Vistara a distant second with 11%. The combined share of Tata Group airlines with Air India returning to fold is around 25% and is expected to increase.

The Indian aviation industry is likely to retain its tag of fastest growing market due to primarily three reasons.

One, time-starved bulging middle class, particularly of Generation X and Y, fast navigating to air travel at the expense of Indian railways.

Two, Covid-19 imposed restrictions on the sector globally petering out fast leading to revenge tourist traffic.

Three, a leg-up to aviation comes from the government flagship Udaan programme with Rs 93,000 crore investment in airports/ airfields in more than 160 smaller cities and towns. It has already resulted in more than one crore Indians flying for the first time in their life.

So far, so good. But for actualisation of the dream of India@100, Amrit Kaal will need substantial investment in all areas of aviation, including Make in India aircraft.


Ancient India had a long rich history of mercantile marine transport and shipbuilding. The riverine port of Patali-grama, later Pataliputra, and now Patna, is from where the Mauryas to Guptas wrote the history of ancient India for centuries.

Riverine ports since have exited the scene despite the country having a dedicated institution to develop Inland waterways.

The advent of the Europeans in India started rewriting the history of port sector in the country. And by the late nineteenth century during British Raj, the major ports that carried the bulk of foreign trade were new ports connected with railways — Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Karachi, and Rangoon.

At Independence, the Karachi port went to Pakistan and Rangoon had already gone to Burma and the country with a maritime coastline of 7,517 km was left with two main seaports (Bombay and Madras) and the one river port on River Hooghly (Calcutta).

The real impetus to the port sector came after Independence. And unlike railway, aviation and highway, the transformation of the sector has been led by states.

India today has two types of ports:

One, ports declared as major port as per entry 27 of the Union List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution under a law made by Parliament or existing law.

These ports are the responsibility of the Centre. The Central Government, under the Indian Port Act, 1908, declares a port as major port and the ownership, control, and management of that port is exclusively vests with the central government.

Two, all other ports fall within the jurisdiction of State Governments and are dubbed minor or non-major ports. The state governments are empowered to plan, develop, legislate, regulate, and control non-Major ports.

Currently, the country has 12 major ports (11 as Port Trusts and one Ennore as corporate entity) and more than 200 non-major ports, Statutes governing port sector are Major Port Trusts Act, 1963, and the Indian Ports Act, 1908.

The key differentiator between a major port and non-major ports are not through facilities or connectivity, but the ownership, control, and management of the port.

What is the present state of the sector?

Currently, the country has 7,516.6-km coastline across nine states and four union territories with exclusive economic zone of 2.3 million exclusive economic zone and around 200 million Indians are dependent on sea for their sustenance and livelihood.

About 95% of country’s trade by volume and 75% by value happens through country 12 major ports and 205 notified minor ports.

In 2004, when I was working on a World Bank study to map India’s Port Sector, I found a silent revolution brewing. Non-major ports from nowhere were around 15-20% of the national ones.

Even back then I wrote the writing on the wall — By 2021, non-major ports will account for 40% of total through put.

Non-major ports have bested my prediction and have achieved the pole position, accounting for more than 50% through put.

How did it happen? The lead taken by state governments and the easy, non-stifling regulatory framework. And private investment has done the rest.

Gujarat, with the country’s busiest non-major private ports Mundra and Pipavav, is the real success story, accounting for more than two third of total volume handled by non-major ports, followed by Andhra Pradesh, at 18% and Maharashtra at 8%. Cumulatively, these three states account for 95% of total minor port throughput.

So far, so good.

But there are many issues with India’s port sector- structural, regulator and operational.

And India has an audacious dream to be $10-trillion economy in medium term.

India’s port sector suffered badly for two years due to Covid, the good news is green shoots are visible. The sector has finally started registering growth, surpassing pre-pandemic volumes. Between major and non-major ports, a total of 366.4 million tonnes (MT) of cargo was handled in the first quarter of the financial year (Q1FY23). This is 11.3% higher than the cargo handled during the same period in 2019-20 and almost 17% higher than the volumes of Q1FY19.

The country has unveiled a Maritime India Vision-2030 to overhaul Indian maritime sector, with Rs 3 lakh crore investment in port projects, which is much-needed, but not enough to meet the aspirations of India@100.

It is time again to look at China as to how it has created network of seaports and river ports and how it wrote the story of export-led growth for decades.


As the country moves fast-forward to India@100, by 2047, the country will be more urban than rural, with 50% plus of 1.66 billion Indians living in cities. Like ‘demographic dividend opportunity’, this will usher in an era of big-bang ‘urban dividend opportunity’.

Even in India@75, urban India is the engine of growth. The GDP share of urban India from current 63% is likely to grow to 75% in 2031 and beyond 80% by India@100.

Clearly, it is up to us to make the new urban dividend a boon or bane.

Urban India faces myriad of problems. For the country to reap the benefit of ‘urban dividend’, the urban infrastructure deficit has to be wiped fast.

Amongst urban infrastructure deficit, what matters most is the movement away from complete prevailing urban transport gridlock.

Data says urban India has fast surrendered to motorisation, traffic congestion and parking woes. To me disrupted urban mobility- human and freight- is biggest infra-deficit to be wiped out. Earlier, urban mobility was a peak-hour problem, now it is even outside the peak hours in both large and small cities and is worsening fast.

As per the 2011 census, India had 54 million-plus cities, of which 20 had two-million-plus population. By 2021, million-plus cities will be around 100 and 2-million plus around 50 and cities having 5-10 lakh population are growing faster.

India’s urban mobility system is a story gone horribly wrong. 90% road infrastructure for decades has been created to benefit motorists who cater to 9% of daily trips.

Urban mobility needs paradigm shift.

Because the harsh reality is the number of vehicles in the country reached an all-time high of 74,502,000 units in 2018 from a mere 495,000 units in 1958 and is growing faster today.

What is the solution?

Urban India urgently needs fast, comfortable, safe, secured, affordable and sustainable green urban mobility solutions.

And my definition of green mobility is complete suite of the hierarchy of non-polluting solutions working in tandem. “Rail based (metro-rail, metro-lite, metro-neo, light-rail, monorail, electric-bus, tramways), green buses with or without BRTS (electric and hydrogen), para-transit, and non-motorised solutions (e-rickshaw, cycle-tracks, pedestrian-infrastructure)”.

And the above has to have total inter-modal integration with first- and last-mile connectivity so that public
mobility solutions are available at maximum 500 away.

It is time to again look East at China. In 2000, China and India were evenly placed with regard to urban gridlock.

Then China forged ahead.

Today, China has 9,192 km metro rail in 50 cities i.e., 25% of global network. It will cross 10,000 km by 2022.

China is fast ramping up metro rail and it will have 30,000 km by 2035. China does not look for financial return from metro rail. Its paradigm is ‘$1 investment in metro-rail yields $4 throw forward to economy’.

India lost precious two decades, seeking ridiculous 8.2% FIRR to sanction metro rail project. It was only in Metro Rail Policy (2017) that 14% economic return (EIRR) was made the project sanctioning threshold, even this is an unrealistic expectation.

There is more to China story.

Also, China with 6,000 km BRTS is the BRTS global leader with Guangzhou the latest BRTS poster boy.

Also, led by Shenzhen, most Chinese cities have organized bus service. By the end of 2020, Shenzhen had 38,362 public transport vehicles, and entire bus fleet of Shenzhen was electric.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese cities are fast exiting the list of most polluted cities of the world

India’s metro rail success story — 800 km operational, 1,000 in construction and 1,200 km in planning –is next only to China, but is dwarfed by what China has achieved. It is time for the country to do a massive revamp of urban mobility infrastructure.

From where will needed lakhs of crores come?

It is simple. It is time to make personal transport owner pay through life cycle – ‘purchase, ownership, and usage of cars and two-wheeler’.


Achievements of India@75 have been of many misses and few misses. But the task for Amrit Kaal is humongous and cut out. And the journey to get future-ready and to build infrastructure for India@100 will cost trillions of dollars and the time starts now. Gatishakti is bold, big and aspirational. We need many such time-bound programs for every sector.

If there is a will, there is a way.

Money is the least of the problems. Only slashing corruption by 50% will release substantial capital.

Let the mantra be faster the infrastructure development higher the nation’s all-round growth.

Akhileshwar Sahay is a noted infrastructure expert and President, advisory services at BARSYL, a consulting firm. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication or the company he works with.

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first published:August 28, 2022, 12:40 IST
last updated:August 28, 2022, 12:49 IST