The Afghan Government takes full ownership of a new project to rehabilitate the Salang Pass Highway
If you had travelled along the silk route to Afghanistan over a hundred years ago, your caravan would have encountered some formidable mountain terrain. Crossing the treacherous icy passes was one of the greatest dangers, and could only be undertaken during the summer months. Things did not change much until the 1960s. That was when the Soviets built the sturdy two-lane Salang highway across the Hindukush mountains and bored a 2.8 km long tunnel at the Salang Pass at 3,400 meters above sea level. The Salang tunnel - the world’s highest road tunnel at that time - was a feat of engineering.
In the run up to the first hackathon on road safety in India, we caught up with Arnab Bandopadhyay, Senior Transport Engineer at the World Bank and asked him a few questions:
Why is the World Bank focusing on road safety in India?
India’s roads are among the most dangerous in the world. The number of deaths from road accidents has risen sharply over the past decade. More than one million people have lost their lives in the past 10 years alone and another 5.3 million have been disabled or disfigured for life.
While India has less than 3% of the world’s vehicles, it accounts for some 11% of the world’s road deaths. That too, when many such incidents are not documented at all. Road accidents are not only traumatic for victims and their families but also take a huge economic toll on the country. They cost an estimated 3% of GDP each year. The large majority of road accident victims are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists - mostly from the economically weaker sections of the society – making road safety a matter of social equity. Promoting road safety is therefore an important national priority.
Most of us attendees were novices in the area of inland water transportation in India and were curious to know what Arnab Bandyopadhay, Senior Transport Engineer at the World Bank’s India country office would say.
Home to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world and yet one of the least integrated. Intra-regional trade accounts for only 5% of South Asia’s GDP, compared to 25% of East Asia’s. Meanwhile, with a population of 1.6 billion, South Asia hosts one of the largest untapped talent pools.
To encourage young researchers in the region who aspire to use their research to inform policy making, the World Bank Group calls for research proposals on South Asia regional integration. Proposals will be carefully reviewed and the most suitable proposals (no more than five overall) will be awarded with a grant based on criteria listed below. An experienced researcher from the World Bank’s research department or an external academic will mentor and guide the young researcher in the implementation of the research.
The world economy today presents itself as a diverse canvas full of challenges and opportunities. Advanced economies continue to struggle towards recovery, with the US on its way to tighten monetary policy as the economy picks up while a still weak Eurozone awaits quantitative easing to kick in. At the same time, plunging oil prices have set in motion significant real income shifts from exporters to importers of oil. Astonishingly, amidst all this turmoil, South Asia has emerged as the fastest growing region in the world over the second half of 2014. Led by a strong India, South Asia is set to further accelerate from 7 percent real growth in 2015 to 7.6 percent by 2017, leaving behind a slowing East Asia gradually landed in second spot by China.
While bolstered by record low inflation and strong external positions across the region, the biggest question yet to be addressed by policy makers in South Asia will be how to make the most of cheap oil.
All countries are net oil importers as well as large providers of fuel and related food subsidies, therefore bound to benefit from low oil prices. However, the biggest oil price dividend to be cashed in by South Asia is one yet to be earned, and not one that will automatically transit through government or consumer accounts. The current constellation of macroeconomic tailwinds provides a unique opportunity for policy makers to rationalize energy prices and to improve fiscal policy. Decoupling external oil prices from fiscal deficits may decrease vulnerability to future oil price hikes – something that may very well happen in the medium term. Furthermore, cheap oil offers a great opportunity to introduce carbon taxation and address the negative externalities from the use of fossil fuels.
The World Bank’s latest South Asia Economic Focus (April 2015) titled “Making the most of cheap oil” provides deeper insights regarding South Asia’s diverse policy challenges and opportunities stemming from cheap oil. A first major realization is that the pass through from oil prices to domestic South Asian economies is as diverse as the countries themselves, thanks to a variety of different policy environments across countries and oil products. This is also reflected in recent dynamics, seeing India taking determined action towards rationalizing fuel and energy prices, even introducing a de facto carbon tax and beginning to reap fiscal and environmental benefits. Other countries have so far shown less or no enthusiasm towards reform, in spite of significant and/or increasing oil dependency (particularly in electricity generation, one of the region’s weak spots).
The benefits of public spaces in the poorest parts of the world
We often think of amenities such as quality streets, squares, waterfronts, public buildings, and other well-designed public spaces as luxury amenities for affluent communities. However, research increasingly suggests that they are even more critical to well-being of the poor and the development of their communities, who often do not have spacious homes and gardens to retreat to.
Living in a confined room without adequate space and sunlight increases the likelihood of health problems, restricts interaction and other productive activities. Public spaces are the living rooms, gardens and corridors of urban areas. They serve to extend small living spaces and providing areas for social interaction and economic activities, which improves the development and desirability of a community. This increases productivity and attracts human capital while providing an improved quality of life as highlighted in the upcoming Urbanization in South Asia report.
If you thought Indian women would shy away from working in that traditionally male preserve - the formidable public transport system - think again. Young women in Chandigarh are daring to turn stereotypes on their head by signing up in large numbers to work as bus conductors! And that too on regular public buses, not just on female-only ‘ladies specials’.