MUMBAI (CNN): India has opened the first section of a 1,386-kilometer (861 mile) expressway linking its capital New Delhi to the financial hub of Mumbai, a significant milestone in the South Asian nation’s push to modernize its infrastructure and catch up with its neighboring rival China.
Once complete, the eight-lane carriageway – four in each direction – will be India’s longest, and is expected to reduce travel time between the two cities to 12 hours, cutting the entire journey by half.
On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a 246-kilometer section of the expressway connecting Delhi to the city of Lalsot in the northwestern state of Rajasthan – a popular tourist destination that attracts tens of thousands of travelers with its sprawling palaces and mountainous topography.
“Delhi Mumbai Expressway is one of the most advanced expressways in the world which presents a grand picture of developing India,” Modi said during the opening ceremony, adding its development is expected to boost India’s economic growth and investment.
The Indian government previously said it had invested about $13 billion into the project, which aims to provide a faster link between the capital and five states: Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The first section alone cost $1.4 billion, it said in a news release Sunday.
The opening of the first stretch is a major boost for the world’s fifth-largest economy and soon to be most populous nation, even as India’s infrastructure remains far behind that of China.
In recent years, China has invested billions in ambitious infrastructure projects, including the world’s longest high-speed rail network and an extensive motorway system.
In contrast, Indian trains are notoriously unreliable, and narrow roads with potholes severely impact travel time throughout the country.
One project that aims to improve the country’s railways is the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor. The under-construction 1,506-kilometer (935 mile) route will eventually connect the city of Dadri in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to the Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra. It is expected to decongest India’s railway network and increase the average speed of goods-carrying trains.
For Modi, who swept to power in 2014 on a ticket of nationalism and a promise of future greatness, these projects can be seen as a powerful tool for social integration and political influence, connecting disparate regions with key cities.
“The Delhi-Mumbai Expressway and the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor are going to become two strong pillars of progress for Rajasthan and the country,” he said on Sunday. “We are making a competent, capable and prosperous India.”