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Sandeep Bamzai

Sandeep Bamzai is a media professional of standing and repute having held editorial leadership positions right through his 32 year career. Visiting Fellow at think tank ORF, he is currently writing a book for Harper Collins on the Role of the Indian Pri

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Disequilibrium | How Sloth And Greed Have Tripped India’s Roads & Highway Plan

The catatonic state of our road and highway network needs an urgent dose of an alchemic preparation to revitalise it. Given the state of disarray and disrepair that the UPA left the NHAI in, it requires significant attention to mend things

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Earlier this month, transport minister Nitin Gadkari stewed in his car for close to two hours on the infamous Mahipalpur-Gurgaon patch while trying to make his tryst with Lutyens Bungalow Zone. Caught in a typical but notorious traffic jam, Gadkari was furious. Now it doesn't require anything more than regular nous to comprehend that efficient and effective road and highway building is vital for an emerging economy like India. The catatonic state of our road and highway network needs an urgent dose of an alchemic preparation to revitalise it. Given the state of disarray and disrepair that the UPA left the NHAI in, it requires significant attention to mend things.

The true geographical width and depth of India needs to be connected by roads and highways. There is no gainsaying that at the very intersection of growth, development and employment imperatives remains road and highway building. Addressing an election rally in MP, Rahul Gandhi in October, 2013, said that the NDA built 2,650km of roads during its term, while the UPA constructed 9,570 km during 2004-9. It then emerged that in an affidavit in the Supreme Court his own government had stated in July, 2013 that between 1997-2002, when the NDA was in power, 23,814 km had been added to the national highway network or nearly 50 per cent of the total length of national highways constructed in three decades. And this was done without any controversy under Gen. B C Khanduri's watch. Even more interestingly, the affidavit overlooked one very important thing - that the state highways were "notified" as national highways. This meant that the quantum was still larger.

Road Ministry data shows that between 1996-97 and 2003-04, 3,900 km of NH was constructed and expanded into four lanes. A majority of this, 2,455km, was constructed under the NDA's flagship NH Development Programme (NHDP). This edifice was strong and well laid. But the UPA with its flawed reasoning and poor execution skills muffed up a heaven sent opportunity.
A combination of greed, avarice and corruption turned the surface transport ministry into a virtual Any Time Money machine, T. R. Baalu of the DMK ran the programme into the ground.

Chopping and changing NHAI chairmen repeatedly, Baalu and his DMK mate A. Raja who headed environment, sent the road building programme into free fall. Helping the death spiral was Gajendra Haldea, the advisor to the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who sat on concessionaire agreements because he felt that everyone involved was crooked.

It was only after Kamal Nath took charge of the ministry in the UPA-II that some semblance of order was restored, where he set a target for awarding 20km a day and pushed project preparation. This trend-line in a way continued under his successor CP Joshi's tenure as well but the pace was nowhere near Nath's target.

Still, between UPA's two terms, NH construction added up to 13,533km (till August 2013). But the impediments strewn in the path of road development and all round infrastructural growth remained unresolved due to environment and forest clearances.

Between Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan as environment ministers, the gridlock was complete. Land acquisition became an exercise fraught with imponderables and the industry was left fuming at the slow pace of green lighting. The much hyped public private partnership model remained an abbreviation - PPP - and nothing beyond that.

Let me try and connect the dots here for you. NHAI has now listed 11 road projects where it suspects private developers of diverting a major portion of funds from the escrow accounts putting pressure on PSU bank balance sheets. In three of these cases, shockingly not a single km has been built out while developers have withdrawn cash. Time of India reported on Monday that in one specific case, the developer has withdrawn the entire amount. All told there are 78 such languishing projects under the PPP model where banks are pretty much dealing with stranded assets. So developer is cash lubricated, NHAI has stranded assets and banks are sitting on a mountain of non-performing assets. The vicious cycle of sloth and loot taking its toll on the eco system that requires large dollops of investment.

So, if one wonders why India's road and highway programme is working in a stop-start-stop manner, these sorry facts and figures substantiate the morass of mediocrity that it has fallen into. Emblematic of this travesty is the Delhi-Jaipur highway to hell which has seen innumerable cost and time overruns. It is now finally in sight of a finish. Nitin Gadkari wants to scale up to building 30 km a day, something that will take a lot of shaking off of inertia and lassitude.

Entailing a massive government investment of Rs 19,000 crore, the NDA awarded 7,466 km for upgradation with private investment contributing around Rs 3,500 crore to this kitty.
A maximum 3,477 kilometres was awarded in 2002-03 while the road completion had jumped to 2,351km during 2004- 05 when UPA came to power.

In the same July, 2013 affidavit filed before the apex court, the Centre said that the total length of the national highways in 1980 was 29,023 kilometres, which increased to 76,818 km by the end of 2012.

It also revealed that during 1997-2002, the period under the Ninth Five Year Plan, 23,814km was constructed, which means nearly 50 per cent of the total road constructed in the last three decades, which remains a record since independence.

In comparison, the total length of highways built under the UPA government, which at that point in time was in power for four more years than the NDA, is only 16,000km, the affidavit said.


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