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Should broadband come before roads?

The government is all gung-ho about taking broadband to the remote villages of India, but IT can't address all the problems of rural India such as the need for better roads.
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

Last week, I was in Birbhum district of West Bengal--a backward district of the state, though it boasts of fertile soil and ample natural resources. It's not easy to get to Birbhum from New Delhi. You have to first reach Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and then take a train or drive down to the district which takes four to six hours to drive to.

I took the road. It's strange how the condition of roads in India is directly proportionate to the economic profile of the people who live in the area. While south and central Delhi have good roads, old Gurgaon (which is barely 25 km away) has pathetic roads. And it was the same case with Birbhum. The national highway gets particularly bumpy after Bardhaman--the most advanced district in West Bengal, both industrially and agriculturally.

The bumpy ride to Birbhum was definitely not boring. The district is noted for its topography and its cultural heritage, which is unique and somewhat different from that of the other districts in West Bengal. This district saw many cultural and religious movements in history. The Visva Bharati University at Santiniketan, established by Rabindranath Tagore, is one of the places for which Birbhum is famous.

Birbhum is largely dependent on agriculture, with several rivers flowing across it. The rivers are furious during the monsoons, but shrink during the dry summer months. It's probably this cyclical rotation of droughts and floods which makes life difficult in Birbhum, one of India's 250 most backward districts (out of a total of 640).

While driving through Birbhum, I thought of the Indian government's ambitious National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) that seeks to provide connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats, which are local self-governments at the village level).

The network is being rolled out by the Bharat Broadband Network (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle (SPV) specifically created by the government for the implementation of this project. The cost of this project is around US$3.75 billion (INR 200 billion).

Experts say there is a huge link between broadband penetration and GDP growth. A World Bank study estimated a 10 percent increase in broadband connectivity would lead to a 1.38 percent increase in GDP. At present, broadband penetration in India is less than 2 percent.

I wonder why no one talks about the link between good roads and economic growth. Deep-rooted corruption has ensured remote areas of India do not get good roads.

Will broadband make a huge difference to Birbhum? My view is that pockets like these need good roads before anything else. Roads would make the region accessible, increase trade and tourism.

Roads are a starting point. A highway network is like the human cardiovascular system. Good roads keep a local economy moving, healthy and growing. And potholes render regional commerce sclerotic.

While good broadband connectivity will appease IT companies and multinationals, how many of them will actually brave the potholes to reach remote areas to set up rural BPOs there? Unfortunately, IT cannot address all the ills and problems of a complex country like India. There are really no shortcuts to infrastructure development.


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