FOR a state wishing to be on the fast track of development, Kerala has weak infrastructure.
Transport facilities are woefully inadequate. While the state is better placed than most others with regard to road length, officials concede that many roads are in "very poor" condition.
The state's transport system consists of 161,000 kilometres of road, 1,148 kilometres of railways and 1,687 kilometres of inland waterways. There is also an air network that links Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode .
Several schemes for development of transport facilities are in different stages of implementation and new ones are under consideration. However, there is no integrated plan for development of the multifaceted transport system. Nor has there been a proper study to decide upon the right mix.
The state has a road density of 414 km per 100 sq km, as against the national average of 75 km. Road length per 100,000 people is 505 km, as against the national average of 259 km. However, more than two-thirds of the roads are under panchayats, and only about a quarter of them are black-topped.
About 28,200 km of road (17.5% of the total) are under the Public Works Department.
The reasons cited by officials for their poor condition include low budgetary allocation, delay in release of funds, land acquisition problems and lack of timely maintenance The Kerala State Transport Project, which aimed at modernisation of about 1,600 km of PWD roads, has fallen two years behind schedule.
The state's vehicle population, which is already very high, is increasing by 1,200 each day.
Two-wheelers account for more than half of the vehicles on the road.
Their domination is bound to continue as about 760 new two-wheelers are put on the road daily.
On an average, 116 accidents take place daily, resulting in 140 deaths. Two-wheelers are involved in more than half the accidents. Yet there is strong resistance to enforcement of the rule that requires two-wheel riders to wear helmets.
Even a cursory study of the State's traffic needs will show that there is an urgent need to improve communication facilities in the coastal region, where there is heavy concentration of population. The surest way to speed up movement by road in the region is to widen the coastal highway. However, politicians and bureaucrats are more interested in building a new expressway than in widening the coastal highway.
Improvement of rail travel facilities, too, has not received adequate attention. Instead of pressing for more railway lines and trains, the political leadership has been batting for the formation of a railway zone, which will have no direct bearing on passenger and goods traffic.
The schemes drawn up by the Centre for highway development envisage recovery of costs through toll collections. Since the Communist Party of India (Marxist) set its face against the toll system, the State took no interest in these schemes. The party has now revised its position.
Last week Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan conferred with Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Managing Director E .Sreedharan on the proposal to construct a metro rail system for Kochi at an estimated cost of Rs30 billion.
DMRC had earlier expressed readiness to handle the project.
They also had preliminary talks on the development of an inter-city railway system linking Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Palakkad.
It is not clear if the authorities have examined the relative merits and demerits of these schemes. The metro system, which will facilitate quick movement from Kochi's suburbs to the city centre and back, may lead to increased population concentration in and around the city.
The inter-city system, which will help people to commute to the city from comparatively long distances, may act as a check on uncontrolled growth of the commercial metropolis.
Two decades have elapsed since the Centre approved the idea of a national waterway from Kovalam in the south to Hosdrug in the north. Not even part of it is complete. While lakes and canals provided cheap transport in the State at one time, it is doubtful if the proposed national waterway will attract much commercial traffic. It is, however, certain to give a boost to tourism.
The government needs to give thought to the various proposals and integrate them in a unified scheme so that the state derives the maximum benefit. --Gulf Today, December 24, 2007