India boasts of the world’s second largest road network, and given the length and breadth of the country, this is no surprise. With an expanse of 5.4 million kms, Indian roads support the ferrying of more than 60% of goods and 80% of people movement across the remotest corners of the country. However, what is astonishing is that Indian roads carry such stupendous loads despite having poor conditions and unsatisfactory road management.
Therefore, although the feat achieved is great, it also means that we are incurring costs arising from the wastage of resources, including scarce, imported fuel. It is therefore heartening that the Government of India has taken it upon itself to pursue projects that would result in changing the face of Indian roads in the coming 5-10 years. Does that mean that the issues that plagued such infrastructure projects have just evaporated? The answer is both no and yes. While issues such as land acquisition, red tape, resource crunch, lack of skill sets & technology, and more importantly the absence of co-ordination between agencies continues to hamper progress, industry players now approach projects differently, and try to resolve these issues up front with the help of an resolute intent and firm plans in the form of DPRs (detailed project reports).
The development of roads & highways has been a focus area for the Indian Government as it tries to realise its objective of all-round economic development. On the other hand, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has set a goal before it of building at least 90,000 kms of highway network during the course of its current term to take the length of Indian highways to an ambitious target of 2 lakh kms. The transport infrastructure of India is expected to grow by around 6% in quantum terms in the next 3-4 years, thereby becoming one of the fastest growing infrastructure components of this vast economy.
Exciting Journey Ahead
Of course, key players involved with this industry are euphoric about the development of such plans and supportive policies announced by the Government from time to time. As Amit Uplenchwar, CEO, HCC E&C Business, states, “With infrastructure development being a high priority sector in India, we see a lot of potential in the road segment over the next five years. This will continue to be an area of focus for us.” Uplenchwar continues, “India’s roads & highways segment has very high potential and will continue to attract maximum investments. The Government of India has announced the Bharatmala Pariyojana Scheme under which Rs 8,00,000 crore worth of roads will be built over the next five years. Bharatmala is a new umbrella programme for the highways sector that focuses on optimising the efficiency of road traffic movement across the country by bridging critical infrastructure gaps.”
Devendra Jain, ED & CEO, Dilip Buildcon, puts the industry’s enthusiasm in perspective when he says, “It’s a very exciting time for the roads & highway segment, now more than ever before. This becomes evident if you just look at all the data available. The Government has articulated a five-year vision through the Bharatmala Pariyojana. They have identified the roads that they want to build, where they are going to secure the funds to do so, how much of this is going to come through the government budget and how much extra funding is necessary. The Government has been doing a lot to identify the economic corridors. It has identified border roads. Therefore, it has a very holistic plan. In fact, the entire approach now is to build corridors, rather than doing smaller patches of roads across the country.”
As a matter of fact, the nation is now seeing the development of roads & highways even in far flung regions like border areas, which are typically quite hilly terrains, particularly those in the North and Northeast regions of the country, where climatic, geological, and law & order conditions are difficult to face when it comes to road building activities. In fact, the Indian Government has set up a new organisation by the name of National Highways Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL) under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
Nagendra Nath Sinha, MD, NHIDCL, is upbeat on this focussed initiative on the part of the Indian Government. He explains, “NHI (National Highways Infrastructure) is now focusing its efforts on the non-border states, while we at NHIDCL work in the border states. Border states are typically hill states and they have issues like building a large number of tunnel projects. We have to deal with these issues of hill roads, where drainage problems are a serious challenge. Similarly, slope stabilisation has to be planned as these hills in the Himalayan region are fragile. Clearances for development in the forest region is yet another issue that needs to dealt with by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.”
Smooth Coordination is Key
To help matters along, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) recently decided to award a general approval for diverting forest land to develop infrastructure along international borders and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to NHIDCL. As a key EPC contractor, Uplenchwar welcomes this development for contractors like HCC. He confesses that, “Infrastructure development in the border states has been hampered due to a slower clearance process. This, in turn, affects the ability of the Indian security forces to prepare, mobilise and operate along the border regions. This decision from MOEF is very welcome as this will boost the infrastructure development activity in the border states.”
Sinha professes that the intent is to assist both our army personnel and common citizens in these border areas with ease of movement whether it is for strategic military requirements or for facilitating normal living and carrying out commerce. This is going to be a truly inclusive development for all sections of the Indian populace, wherein people from the remotest corners can now be brought closer together.
Giving another perspective on how this co-ordination is helping smooth planning and implementation, Jain points out that, “The Government agencies have also started work on DPRs for a majority of such infrastructure projects. For a big portion of the Phase-1 projects, there are more than 3,000-4,000 projects. Their DPRs are already ready or in the process of getting ready.”
Jain is confident that this co-ordination would help not only the EPC contractors who work directly on such projects, either on their own or through PPP models, but the rub-off effect would also be witnessed on the downstream suppliers and ancillary units who work on these projects. In this context, he says, “If the government is trying to do so much, it provides an opportunity not just for the EPC contractor, but also for all the ancillary units whether it is cement, bitumen, steel suppliers, etc., who get financial support.”
Above all else, the advent of latest technologies and technical aids has been a heartening feature in the delivery of these large infrastructure projects. Jain points out that the Government is keen to reduce the timelines to deliver on these roads & highways projects to meet their ambitious target. The only way that they can do this is by reducing the timelines for permissions and using the latest technologies, along with remaining in preparedness with impeccable plans and an implementation schedule. “The Government’s endeavour is towards reducing the timelines so that projects can be done within the specified time limits, which is great,” Jain supplies.
Even NHIDCL has implemented many such technologies and been recognised for their technology interventions and IT applications. Sinha explains that they use technologies intensively for different stages. For example, in the DPR preparation stage, they use LIDAR. In fact, NHIDCL has played a leading role in bringing technologies, particularly IT technologies for the highways segment, into play.
Usual challenges of land acquisition due to poor land records and the state government mechanism’s apathy are now overcome with adequate pre-planning with the agencies required to complete 90% of land acquisition before the project hits the ground. Once the laws and rules in this context are settled, the implementation would smoothen further.
As far as manpower availability and skill development are concerned, CSR projects undertaken by corporations like NHIDCL in remote corners like Arunachal Pradesh are exemplary. They act as a catalyst in improving the availability of scarce labour to facilitate project implementation on a fast track.