The Patient Crusader
By Jayashree Kini Mendes
Civil servants in India are being pressed to think big. The idea is that if the bureaucracy works better, bringing in change is that much faster. With their erudite background, they are required to be farsighted, sanguine, committed, and forthright. An amenable social disposition and perseverance to complete tasks in hand only adds weightage to the persona. There’s more. Few civil servants are entrusted with critical portfolios and those shouldering them have been given the role based on track record. Even fewer are conferred dual roles or even reinstated in an earlier held portfolio much after moving on to larger roles. In recent times, such an honour has befallen Yudhvir Singh Malik, Secretary in the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (MoRTH) and chairman, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). And rightly so.
For long, India’s beleaguered roads & highways sector had not received the attention it ought to have. Construction of new roads & highways were largely ignored and mostly left in disarray. Little thought was given to connecting cities and the hinterland, and even little to the fact that at the very intersection of growth, development and employment imperatives remains road & highway building. So when Malik was appointed chairman of NHAI (November 2016-June 2017; his first innings) by the present government, he decided to take matter into his hands. The priority was to not only build highways but also connect remote locations to cities. It helped that the government also announced the Bharatmala project. In his words, “The government has come out with the next most ambitious road development programme, Bharatmala. This mega programme is divided into two phases. This is the next most ambitious programme after the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) which was undertaken in 1998 under the Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which saw the realisation of the Golden Quadrilateral and the North-South and East-West corridors.”
Malik adds that working with the impatient and supporting Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways, Nitin Gadkari, has only quickened the pace of projects and put them into execution faster. Much math has gone into working out the nuances of this gigantic programme. “Deciding on the contours of Bharatmala involved much in-depth studies. We had consultants on board who embarked on Origins and Destination traffic studies, with the Ministry helping them recognise those national corridors that had choke points. For instance, the East-West corridor leading from Gujarat to Silchar has a number of places where the road is a combination of 6-lane, 4-lane, or 2-lane, and difficult sections where a 2-lane road is difficult to upgrade to 4-or 6-lane for myriad reasons,” he adds.
While some might flinch in the face of such encumbrances, Malik is undeterred. He allows his experience back home in his state, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, FSSAI, NITI Aayog, etc. to stand him in good stead and deal with the intricacies of perplexing moments and situations. He is glad that this ambitious programme has the interest of the Prime Minister aided by regular monthly PRAGATI meetings.
Bureaucrats at the Till
On paper, India has long claimed some of the world’s most extensive road and rail networks. That belied reality: roads were twisty, bumpy, single-lane or plain macadamised. Puzzled tourists wondered why distances that looked so small on maps took forever to traverse. The road network had barely expanded since the days of the British Raj, and the remotest corners were tied to the centre by the thinnest of infrastructure threads. Real estate development came up faster than infrastructure. Malik is fully aware that capacity addition to the existing roads is painstaking.
Bharatmala Pariyojana has been divided into six components. Components are measured on the basis of assured connectivity, ease of work, and long-term benefits. Malik says, “The six components include improvement of the national corridors, development of economic corridors, building inter-corridors and feeder routes, border roads, coastal roads and port connectivity, and, finally, expressways. This is how it has been planned and as we gather more understanding we are also working out ways to optimise these corridors.”
One such example is the Delhi-Mumbai economic corridor, which is now connected through NH-8 and congested. This corridor is a 6-lane up to Jaipur, and along the way might narrow to a 4-lane for some kilometres.
“We have ruled out capacity addition because of the onerous tasks of land acquisition, the expensive utilities shifting, etc. So in January this year, the Ministry came out with guidelines on a few major issues. One was that development of road capacity along the economic corridors need not necessarily be an expansion of the existing road. Since the focus at the initial stage of any road construction has been on connecting major cities and towns en route, it need not be an optimal alignment from the Origin and Destination. It could take a circuitous route, and a serpentine one, whereas an economic corridor becomes most efficient when it’s a crow-fly route,” adds Malik.
Already the government has awarded 6,320km of roads under Phase I of Bharatmala with the financial implications estimated to be Rs 1.44 lakh crore. The government estimates to incur a stupendous investment of about Rs 7 lakh crore for constructing 84,000 km of roads.
The boost to India’s infrastructure building has not been problem-free. An exuberant rush into public-private partnerships for big projects a decade ago left many private firms taking on bigger financial risks than they could manage. Many ventures stalled. Sometimes, the government found itself at a loose end when contractors defaulted on delivery citing vague reasons. But much of that is behind now.
Malik admits that there are challenges, but he prefers to remain firmly in the present. “When we take up expansion of an existing road, we face three or four challenges. One is land acquisition for the expanded right of way, second is utilities shifting, the third is tree felling, and lastly, it is the removal of structures. Each one of these has costs, and takes time and effort in getting approvals from authorities, and then addressing them,” he adds.
It is for this reason that MoRTH and NHAI decided that the alignments of major economic corridors must be considered after a thorough cost benefit analysis has been worked out. There are benefits of building green-field projects, asserts Malik. It would allow the Government to acquire land in one go with a futuristic plan, which means that considering an ultimate capacity of 8-lane would translate into 70m to 90m right of way in the first go. It would also mean minimal tree felling and utilities shifting, and any other impediments could be worked around.
So as and when such major economic corridors projects are to be considered it helps to do a cost benefit analysis as to the costs and efforts involved in development of a green-field vis-à-vis expansion of the existing corridor. “We found greenfield corridors work out to be more efficient and have already identified nine such corridors till now,” he adds.
In the case of Delhi-Mumbai economic corridor, we have finalised an alignment that passes through rather undeveloped areas of Haryana, east of Rajasthan and West of Madhya Pradesh. This green-field alignment reduces the existing distance between Delhi-Vadodara by more than 106kms, besides opening new areas to development. Of course, small adjustments are made when the road takes them through a reserve forest, a wildlife sanctuary or a water body. Further on, NHAI has already awarded five packages from Vadodara to Kim (124km), he said.
The staunch crusader who reveres safeguarding the environment is happy that not only will this cut down travel time by more than two hours, but also reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. “Similarly, we are looking at established economic corridors such as Surat to Chennai and Vishakhapatnam-Vijaywada, Chennai-Salem among others. The idea is reducing distance and if a green-field alignment can help achieve that, it is good,” says Malik.
There’s also a quest to use rubber that is added to the bitumen of BG30 Grade or modified bitumen that prolongs the life of the road.
The Ministry and NHAI seek to work with minimum interruptions. In this respect, another conscious decision taken was to acquire land only on one side of the existing road wherever an existing road is to be expanded, thus minimising the pitfalls of tree felling and utility shifting. “The initiatives for green-field or one-side expansion has got huge support from the Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has been supportive and impatient with the pace of development,” says Malik. The Prime Minister has been approving the approach, in particular the environmental gains therefrom.
The Ministry also has its own guidelines to building roads. The configuration of any NH is usually: 2-lane with paved shoulder, which means 10m carriage way (otherwise it is 7m carriage way), 4-lane, 6-lane and 8-lane. While the NHAI is mostly entrusted development of high value NHs of 4-lane and above configurations, the 2-lane/ 2-lane with paved shoulders are normally constructed by MoRTH through the State PWDs. NHIDCL is entrusted projects in North-east and North-west hill states and the border roads.
Road design plays an important role for NHAI. A bituminous or flexible pavement road is designed for a lifecycle of 15-20 years, whereas a cement concrete road can last for 30 years. “For economic corridors, we are contemplating using a perpetual design which offers strength to the base foundation and one is required only to do up the wearing coat at regular intervals,” says Malik.
Similarly, the NHAI is ensuring that its efforts will pay in terms of toll collections and add to the ease of life for the road users. Last year, NHAI also launched FASTags for electronic toll collection. The exercise has immensely helped and today more than 27 lakh FASTags have been issued across the country.
On The Right Path
Few know about the Ministry’s and NHAI’s constant moves to transform and optimise processes. One such issue it tackled was quick land acquisitions. There has been a significant reduction in time in managing the acquisition processes with the launch of a portal, Bhoomi Rashi, linked with the public finance management system thus enabling easy flow of funds from the Competent Authorities, Land Acquisition (CALA). Bhoomi Rashi, developed by MoRTH with NIC, has been a game changer in easing and fast-forwarding the entire process. “There are instances where the cost of land acquisition is equal to or higher than the civil construction cost of the road thus becoming a drain on resources and its deployment,” he says with a wry smile.
Rules have been laid out for pre-construction, construction and maintenance stages to improve quality, reduce construction cost and time. Some of the changes include mandatory use of LiDAR in land surveying, preparing DPRs, streamlining land acquisition process, etc. There is zero tolerance towards contractors who have delayed projects in the past. What is irksome is that most of these projects left incomplete have lengths less than 10km and out of the currently 138 delayed projects, NHAI hopes to get 93 completed by March next year. Malik also holds the concessionaires responsible for maintenance of the highways. “For BOT projects, the concessionaire is responsible for maintenance during the entire concession period. But the maintenance of a road project in BOT annuity and HAM is 15 years. Roads constructed under EPC mode have a defect liability period of four years, which is being proposed to be increased to five years now. Beyond that, we engage O&M contractors,” he adds.
Road projects don’t come cheap. Moreover, their long gestation period make them susceptible to cost escalation. The four arms of the MoRTH (PWD, NHAI, NHIDCL, BRO) work according to the responsibilities given to them. Most high-value projects come under the ambit of NHAI. There are times when the Authority is compelled to construct projects that could be more of an investment rather than see much traffic. Malik says, “We supplement the budgetary support by raising borrowings and repayments are made through earnings from the projects. However, those projects that are economically unviable but are considered to be important from an infrastructure point of view are funded through budgetary resources.”
With so many achievements and a continuous work in progress, what Malik seeks to achieve is get young people on the ground to work with consulting firms like DPR consultants and Authority Engineers. There’s a general sense of fatigue when he sees firms lackadaisical in their work. We need young people, what a friend once called, with fire in the belly. The reformer would like to maintain that the government is indeed doing its job, and how.