Rural Roads are Key to Helping Society's Most Vulnerable

Rural roads, and other infrastructure in the countryside, provide a lifeline to the poorest and most vulnerable. Photo: ADB
Rural roads, and other infrastructure in the countryside, provide a lifeline to the poorest and most vulnerable. Photo: ADB

By Amrit Ajay Sharma, Swapna Bist Joshi

Improved rural road infrastructure enables connectivity and safe mobility. It also affects access to health, education and economic opportunities.

Almost a billion people globally have limited access to road infrastructure. This not only inhibits their mobility, but also limits their access to development benefits, disproportionately impacting those most disadvantaged. Improved rural infrastructure, most specifically roads, is key to rural development. It is a crucial pathway to poverty alleviation as it provides access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for those who need it most.

Rural connectivity also provides for local employment, which is a crucial aspect in the COVID-19 scenario that has seen large-scale reverse migration to rural areas from cities. These local employment opportunities provide a much-needed safety net to reduce financial distress.

Almost a billion people globally have limited access to road infrastructure

Our work on rural roads in India has highlighted the contribution of the sector towards inclusive socio-economic development. The following actions at the policy and community level will help support this vital sector:

  • Recognise and prioritise. Position rural connectivity at the ‘heart’ of rural development planning and prioritize the sector.
  • Close the resource gap. Assure adequate and committed investments in the sector.
  • Involve the community. Create opportunities for community participation in every aspect of road design, construction and maintenance to ensure better designed and maintained roads.
  • Encourage local workforce participation. Maximise local workforce participation in road construction and maintenance activities.
  • Develop local talent. Encourage and develop local talent in technical aspects of rural road construction, maintenance, road safety and contract management.
  • Take proactive and affirmative measures to create spaces for those most marginalised. Ensure that women, girls, the elderly, people with disabilities and other socially disadvantaged groups within the community are provided adequate representation in every aspect of community engagement and decision making, including workforce participation.
  • Design and integrate innovative elements. It is important to push the conventional boundaries and ask what new design features can be integrated to enrich the lives of the communities this infrastructure will serve.
  • Learn, replicate, upscale and disseminate. Establish rural road learning and dissemination platforms to encourage experience sharing of good practices in the sector.

Many of these recommendations are based on what we have learned through the program we are working on in India now, which provides all-weather road access to rural areas to reduce poverty and promote social development.

Our field visits revealed the social and economic multiplier effects of rural roads that directly impact the lives of those most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Benefits were found particularly among girls and children with disabilities, and we documented the growth of women-led self-help groups and entrepreneurial activities, as well as effective maternal and child health care services.

It is clear that providing roads to rural areas, and targeting the most vulnerable in society, contributes significantly to better quality of life and an improved standard of living.