And the so-called Golden Quadrilateral, more than 3,000 miles of new highway being built between India's major cities, doesn't begin to fill the roadway deficit. "The GQ is only a marginal improvement," says Cyrus Guzder, chairman and managing director of AFL, India's largest logistics firm, in Mumbai.
Much of the new highway system, which is supposed to be finished this year, is just four traveling lanes without a central divider. "They've broadened the road and made a passing lane. This is not an expressway," says Guzder. "We only have 1,000 miles of separated expressway. We need 8,000 to make any difference."
TOLL OF THE ROAD Even now, any trip between two major Indian cities takes three days, compared with making the same journey in Europe in one.
To understand the difficulties facing truckers on India's highways, consider a routine trip from New Delhi in the north to Bangalore in the south. The route is just 1,500 miles, yet it often takes four to five days. Drivers are bedeviled by traffic jams, prohibitions on traveling through major cities during daylight hours, and long delays at state border crossings.
The route passes through five states and the New Delhi Metropolitan District. At each border, drivers must stop and pay a tax. In some states they have to stop twice.
Guzder figures a driver will lose 14 to 16 hours waiting at border stations on this trip. On top of the cost of paying taxes and the delays involved, drivers often have to pay bribes to government functionaries to get clearance to pass, Indian business leaders say.
INFRASTRUCTURE NOT UP TO SPEED One other snag: The state of Madhya Pradesh is notorious for "dacoits," gangs of criminals who ambush trucks at night and steal their cargo. Many truckers prefer not to travel through there at night, or wait until they can join a convoy that offers them some security.
Right now, trucks average about 20 mph on the New Delhi to Bangalore route. AFL's Guzder figures that if there were real expressways and no required stops at borders, the drivers could perhaps double that speed. He also calculates that they could save 15% of their costs on fuel and wear and tear.
The Indian government seems to get it. "This is a big problem," admits Dayanidhi Maran, the country's IT and telecommunications minister. "We're very much aware of the fact that growth is happening so fast and our infrastructure isn't able to handle it. We realize we have to do much more and move faster."
But eliminating bureaucracy and building new expressways have proven difficult for India to manage, so the dream of speedy transit on multilane expressways isn't likely to come true any time soon. By Steve Hamm