Torrential monsoon rains are disrupting life in most parts of India, but 250,000 labourers working on widening the country's highways are not letting mud stop them. By erecting gigantic tarpaulins to protect the patch of ground they are digging or installing pumps to suck out the rainwater, work goes on. This is one infrastructure project that India is determined to finish on time. The last Indian to undertake a road project of this magnitude was the Mughal emperor, Sher Shah Suri, who built the famous Grand Trunk Road in the 16th century. In one of the world's largest roadways projects, India is working on the 'Golden Quadrilateral' - a gleaming, fast, smooth four- and six-lane highway network linking India's four big cities - New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai. India hopes the network, costing US$12 billion, will rival those of its neighbour and economic rival, China. Indian visitors to China have been humbled at seeing the shiny infrastructure in cities such as Shanghai. The roads back home are a mess, with crater-sized potholes. Driving on them involves a Darwinian struggle for space with bullock carts, cyclists, village urchins, meandering cows, trucks, scooters and cars. Traffic congestion is massive. India's 52,000km of national highways account for about 1.6 per cent of the total road network of 3.3 million kilometres, but carry more than 40 per cent of the traffic. Most national highways are dual carriageway, at best. Trucks carrying goods crawl at speeds of less than 40km/h. Bad roads mean high transport costs, not just in terms of the time taken to get goods to their destination but also from high fuel costs and excessive maintenance from wear and tear. A 1996 government report estimated that economic losses caused by bad and congested roads in India had hit up to US$6.5 billion a year. Stung by reports that poor roads were a drag on economic growth, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee promised in 1998 that he would expand and improve the 5,846km of highways. He was also responding to the fact that structural changes in the economy have led to a shift away from the production of low-value, high-bulk goods such as steel and cement and towards high-value, low-bulk items such as white goods, which are time-sensitive and depend on efficient deliveries. With appalling roads, manufacturers have to keep large inventories and buffer stocks to compensate for unreliable deliveries. Better roads and efficient deliveries reduce the costs of large inventories. It is a tradition in India that these big infrastructure projects are poorly conceived and inexorably sucked into bureaucratic delays. Huge time and cost overruns are the norm. But with this project, the completion date keeps being advanced. The first phase will be finished by next year and the second and final phase by 2007. 'It used to take the government 10 years to complete a 33km highway. It'll take us just three years to complete a 1,700km stretch,' said Deepak Dasgupta, chairman of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which is in charge of the project. The contractors, Indian and mostly Asian companies, are getting attractive incentives. For every month a project is completed earlier, NHAI pays an incentive that is equal to 1 per cent of the contract's value. Surface Transport Minister B.C. Khanduri, a retired army general, said he wanted to demolish the perception that nothing happens on time in India. He said he would not tolerate delays. He said he found that the forest department in Bihar was refusing to cut trees on a plot of land despite the fact that the NHAI had paid them for it. The money had been spent elsewhere by the bankrupt government. 'Instead of waiting to have meetings all over again with officials, we just paid the amount to the forest department all over again - anything to prevent the momentum faltering,' he said. The World Bank estimates India will save billions of rupees every year from traffic moving at a much faster speed. Its comparisons with China are embarrassing. China's road network is smaller than India's, but it comprises more than 15,000km of four- or six-lane expressways linking the main cities. India's major economic centres are not linked by expressways. Only 3,000km are four-lane. 'Transport is key to social development and poverty reduction because it provides increased accessibility to schools, health services, and jobs,' said Chris Hoban, former adviser for India at the World Bank. The road building has already given a fillip to the steel and cement industry but the long term benefits will be far wider. Domestic industrialists and foreign investors have consistently complained of poor infrastructure. 'Better roads mean businessmen can access their markets much more easily and foreign investors needn't think twice about setting up plants here,' said Manushi Roy, deputy director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry. 'At the moment, they simply don't know if they can make deliveries on time or be competitive because of high transport costs. Overall, the impact on India's economic growth rate will fantastic.' At present, it takes a truck five days to get from New Delhi to Calcutta and back. Better roads will cut the trip to three. Modern, multi-axle trucks will be used, cutting freight rates by carrying greater volumes. Trucks travelling at steady speeds on smooth roads will use less fuel and suffer less wear. 'It's difficult to over-estimate the boost to the economy the highways will give,' said Alok Bansal, the World Bank's senior transport planner. 'They will expand India's economic activity immeasurably. Inland transport costs for manufacturers who are located far away from the ports and railways are exorbitant. Exporters can't compete. So, lower transport costs will help them.' The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is so pleased with the project that it will feature as a plank in its election manifesto next year as an achievement of which Indians should be proud. Mr Khanduri has even been accused of pushing relentlessly to get it finished in time for the election. Laughing, he denies the charge: 'This is a job that has to be done not just on time but well. These improved highways are a legacy I want to leave future generations, so they had better be good, which is why I'm not rushing anything.'