In 2019, Zoynul Abedin, a farmer in Pirganj upazila in Thakurgaon, cultivated potatoes on four bighas of land, spending Tk1 lakh in the process.
He was delighted after getting a good yield of potatoes – 130 maunds per bigha. But his joy turned into despair when prices offered for his produce were below his production cost.
He was forced to sell his potatoes at throwaway prices – Tk180 per maund at a local market. At the same time, potatoes were being sold at Tk500-600 per maund in Dhaka.
He counted losses amounting to Tk2,000 per bigha because of poor road connectivity and inadequate marketing facilities in his village.
"Had I transported my produce to Dhaka at a low cost, and quickly, I would have made a good profit from the sales," Zoynul said in a tone of frustration.
Eventually, the farmer gave up potato cultivation.
It is not Zoynul alone. Thousands of farmers in the villages have to go through a similar situation, mainly due to the absence of good road connectivity.
The bad time for farmers will hopefully be gone soon, as the government has taken up an initiative to repair and widen 335,353km of rural roads connecting upazilas, unions and villages across the country.
A well-connected road network can boost the rural economy by helping agriculture, cottage and micro industries and handicraft thrive.
Road connectivity, once improved, is expected to give new momentum to the rural economy and carry the benefits of the country's economic growth to people living far from cities and towns.
To this end, the government has been working on a gazette on road construction in rural areas to replace the gazette issued 17 years ago. The new gazette will be published soon.
The changes include strengthening the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) in the construction of rural roads. The LGRD will be able to build roads up to 24 feet wide with a minimum thickness of 890mm, a departure from the 582mm at present.
There is also a proposal to improve the quality of raw materials to increase the durability of the roads, with a penetration grade set at bitumen 60-70, considering impacts of climate change.
Kazi Jahangir Alam, chief of the physical infrastructure division of the Planning Commission, said rural roads that once used to be free of vehicles were now used by heavy goods-laden trucks and tractors.
The intensifying pressure of traffic is damaging the roads fast, while vehicles cannot move smoothly because of narrow roads, which is why the authorities are working on changing the road designs, he said.
Based on recommendations by the Planning Commission, a gazette will be issued soon on this issue, Jahangir Alam added.
Improved roads will usher in a new era of rural development by opening up opportunities for agriculture, agriculture-reliant businesses, cottage and micro industries, weaving industry, flower and jute cultivation, fish and livestock farming, dairy business, tea and paper industries, etc., according to experts.
For example, produce from Jhum cultivation in the hilly regions will easily reach the markets if road conditions are good.
The government has already sketched out a workplan, "Amar Gram-Amar Shohar", under which as many as 87,230 villages will be connected to a better and sustainable road network.
Road infrastructure expert Mizanur Rahman, of the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, said the plan to provide urban amenities in rural areas would be translated into reality if country roads were widened and developed.
Sources said the authorities had proposed widening the roads under LGED depending on the traffic load, and how important they were for the public.
Dr Mohammad Yunus, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said a good road network would facilitate access to health, education, banking and other services.
It will also play a part in boosting trade and investment. Opportunities for employment will grow too, Yunus said, adding that the LGED's road widening initiative would open up a window of possibilities for the rural economy.
Upazila and union roads
The gazette that was issued in 2004 allows construction of 12-18 feet wide roads connecting upazilas, while the proposal suggests a maximum width of 24 feet.
Roads in the unions will remain as wide as they are now -- 10-12 feet, but those will be revamped to allow the movement of heavy vehicles.
While formulating the eighth five-year plan last year, the government set a goal of upgrading 3,000kms of upazila and union roads every year.
Curves along these roads need to be straightened, approach roads to bridges developed and the height of the road embankments raised above the flood level. And if necessary, 300 acres of land will be acquired to build a better road network.
That will involve an annual cost of Tk400 crore at current market prices, said officials at the Planning Commission.
Besides, the design life of many roads has expired over the last 3 decades, requiring the authorities to repair them.
The previous gazette did not determine the width of village roads, but the latest proposal set it at 10 feet at a 5% increased cost.
The government in the eighth five-year plan aims to build these roads of 4,000km every year. Roads in the hilly regions will be 12-16 feet wide as per the new proposal. The 2004 gazette did not specify the width.
Roads for heavy vehicles in industrial areas
The roads that are plied by at least 500 motorised vehicles will be widened to 20-24 feet.
As such, land acquisition will not be needed in industrial areas in Dhaka, Gazipur, Chattogram and Narayanganj.
According to the LGED, roads that see the movement of 500 vehicles and more are of 5,492km, which is only 1.55% of the total rural road network.
LGED Additional Chief Engineer Sheikh Md. Mohsin said the organisation had already begun the road development work and that all roads under the LGED would be upgraded in phases.
And as the budget got bigger, road development work would get higher allocations.
Life cycle cost
A survey report of the LGED projects a reduction in the cost of roads incurred over their lifespan if constructed in line with the proposed design.
Moreover, road user cost, mainly involving travel time, will also be less. The cost of traveling for non-motorised vehicles will be reduced by Tk2 for each kilometre a day, while it will be Tk5 for motorised vehicles.
Having to travel in less time, people will experience an improvement in their lifestyle, which in turn will contribute to economic development.
According to the Planning Commission, annual budgets have been increased by 15-20% year-on-year over the last decade. Allocations for the LGED rose in proportion to such increases.
The additional cost of road construction can be taken care of with the increasing budget allocations, it says.