BY jayashree kini mendes
Speak softly and carry a big stick, is an adage we have all heard quite often. It is quite useful when you are leading the charge of building infrastructure that involves roads & highways, and tunnels that require high engineering expertise. Not just ordinary roads and tunnels, but infrastructure that is rife with claims and clearances, not to forget surreptitious attacks that marks the international borders crucial to the country. Nagendra Nath Sinha, MD, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL), has his work cut out for him. In a tête-à-tête with Construction Week, the soft-spoken Sinha with a gentle demeanour reveals why building roads in the North East and other states bordering neighbouring countries is not an easy task. It handles projects in all the North Eastern states like Tripura, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal.
When NHIDCL was set up in 2014 under the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, it was given the mandate to promote, survey, establish, design, build, operate, maintain and upgrade National Highways and strategic roads including interconnecting roads in parts of the country which share international boundaries with neighbouring countries. The organisation is involved in the construction of roads in the border districts along the international borders and the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is also overseen by the Defence Ministry and the Home Ministry. It was a task that was earlier done by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Over the last few years, several thousands of kilometres of roads have been transferred from the BRO and other organisations and handed over to NHIDCL, thus enabling the Ministry to complete the work on time and help the country improve connectivity and forcing other agencies to do their core work.
Sinha says, “When I joined in August last year, there was only seven months left to the financial year. Few projects had been sanctioned and we were left with a large chunk of targets that needed to be awarded as well as completing ongoing construction. There was also the issue of delegation of authority to sanction projects. The projects under execution had been sanctioned by the Ministry and we had to persuade the Ministry to define a streamlined protocol for approving the new projects so that they could be awarded and work could begin. I am happy to tell you that we were able to award over 1,000kms of new roads. Besides this, we also completed about 600kms of highways, and a feather in our cap was awarding the country’s longest tunnel project, Zojila, which has a length of about 14.2kms.”
TIES THAT BIND
Working in remote locations at high altitudes and deep forests calls for a certain grit and determination. For long, India’s periphery has been prone to attacks and this has only strengthened the government’s resolve to fortify its borders. The idea is to allow the Army and citizens to move easily from town to town, be it for vigilance purpose or to do business.
It’s for this reason that NHIDCL anticipates creating customised and specialised skills in terms of addressing issues like complexities of geographical terrains and extensive co-ordination requirements with State Governments and security agencies. The organisation has the approvals of the Environment Ministry who extends a general approval for diverting forest land to build infrastructure, which is applicable for road construction and other infrastructure within 100kms of LAC, 15kms of Indo-Nepal border, 16kms of Indo-Myanmar border and 5kms from all other international borders. Arunachal Pradesh is the largest portfolio currently in NHIDCL’s kitty with 1,000km of roads and Rs 14,000 crore investment. Sinha says, “We are building certain stretches of the Trans-Arunachal highway which is about 1,800km long and runs in the South of the state and then along the river valleys we are building a stretch of 175km roads along Joram-Koloriang (120kms). Besides that, we are constructing Akajam-Likabali-Bame (83kms), Roing Hunli Anini (184kms), Brahmkund Hayuliang-Hawai highway (120kms), and the Pasighat-Pangin road (45kms).” NHIDCL also has the overall mandate to construct an overall 10,000kms of roads by 2022 for which it is inching to prepare and close the DPRs by 2019.
The roads are along the valleys of Arunachal Pradesh which will connect with the ambitious Trans-Arunachal highway.
In its biggest challenge yet, NHIDCL will construct the 14.2km long, 2-lane bi-directional Zojila tunnel at an estimated cost of Rs 6,809 crore. The government body has signed an MoU with IL&FS Transportation for its construction. The tunnel will provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar, Kargil and Leh. On completion, the tunnel is expected to be an engineering marvel and a first-of-its-kind in such geographical terrain. It will have modern technical safety arrangements such as cut-and-cross ventilation system, fully transverse ventilation system, uninterrupted power supply, CCTV monitoring, variable messaging boards, traffic logging equipment, tunnel radio, emergency telephone system, etc. IL&FS is responsible for construction, operation and maintenance of the tunnel on an EPC basis.
Technology plays a paramount role in the initial stages of DPR, procurement and tunnelling. “We use technologies intensively across various stages. In the DPR preparation stage, we use LIDAR; in tunnel DPR we would like to deploy aerial electromagnetic survey method, and similarly, we’re thinking of using horizontal directional coring for unearthing geological and geotechnical status of the alignment,” adds Sinha.
NHIDCL refrains from specifying the technology for construction and leaves it to the contractor to choose any technology permitted by the Indian Road Congress. “However, in certain cases we have allowed them to use stabilisers so as to bring down the requirement of aggregates,” says Sinha.
MAKING THE MARK
What gives Sinha a sense of pride is his team’s prompt response to the government’s decision to complete detailed project reports (DPRs) of complicated projects much before the deadline. “We’ve substantially completed the DPR of large projects such as the Dhubri Phulbari project, and have started work on the DPR of the Bharatmala project. We have awarded DPR of about 5,000kms, and since taking charge we’ve been able to do a considerable amount of work,” he adds.
Recognising the tremendous efforts, the Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances bestowed the Golden Award on NHIDCL for re-engineering of IT applications. Two years ago, the organisation had designed and launched INAM-Pro, a web portal to bring cement buyers and sellers together. The portal facilitated comparison of price, availability of materials, and made it convenient for prospective buyers to procure cement at reasonable prices. Following the success, the portal has recently been upgraded to INAM-Pro+ and includes the A to Z of construction materials, equipment/machinery and services like purchase/hiring/lease of new/used products and services in the domains of construction materials (steel, bitumen, aggregates, paint, etc), infrastructure machinery, Intelligent Transport System Equipment, road furniture, haulage vehicles, among other things, that go into road building. The publicly visible prices have promoted transparency and enhanced ease of doing business. The Corporation has also persuaded the Ministry and developed a software for evaluating contractors’ contracts through BIMS, which will soon be mandatory from June.
Sinha feels that NHIDCL should adopt technologies like drones and artificial intelligence so that they are able to predict events and traffic projections more accurately. He is keen to adopt technology that will aid in quick maintenance of highways thus reducing wear and tear and inconvenience to the commuters.
Besides this, NHIDCL had also developed ePACE (Projects Appraisal & Continuing Enhancements) and INFRACON (National Portal for Infrastructure Consultancy Firms and Key Personnel).
WORKING THE SYSTEM
There’s a unique methodology that NHIDCL adopts to award projects. Unlike most government and public authorities that require companies to register for public works, this government body prefers to list the eligibility criteria for the contractors and evaluates them based on the technical and commercial bids, not to forget past experience, bidding capacity, and the financial wherewithal. Commercial bids are opened only after technical bids meet with approval.
Execution of projects is another long-drawn process. Considering the hilly nature of the borders coupled with the inability to follow the existing alignments due to poor vertical and horizontal geometries, several months pass by before the Corporation has completed surveying and determining the alignment which meets standards. Inclement weather also throws up hurdles and gives a window period of maximum six months to fast-track work. Sinha says, “A large part of the border highways are encompassed by the forests and wildlife areas and this means negotiating and availing clearances from the Forest department. The unstable geological terrain throws up even bigger challenges. The heterogeneous land has no homogenous soil and underground conditions. Sometimes, this situation arises every 10 metres and causes anguish to the department. Lugging construction materials to the site, tackling the green tribunal, scarce manpower, poor law & order in those areas, are only some of the woes we constantly deal with before we can award the contracts.”
Sinha adds that most agencies working on road projects are not prone to such challenges as his company is. However, he adds, these are typical impediments faced considering that roads on the border will involve building tunnels, which is often intercepted with drainage problems, soil & slope stabilisation, fragile hills, flood mitigation, etc. Specialised engineers are roped in from outside the Corporation to complete and hand over a final report before work can begin.
Road construction also involves building bridges and currently several large bridges are being constructed over the Brahmaputra river. One such bridge is between Dolabari and Kaliabor-Tiniali, which is parallel to an existing bridge. Engineering work is in full swing for another 20km long bridge between Dhubri in Assam and Phulbari in Meghalaya. This would supposedly be the longest bridge, of which 10km would be over the river and another 10km on floodplains.
A conscientious decision that the Ministry insists upon and NHIDCL has vowed to do is ensure 90% land acquisition before awarding projects to contractors. The Ministry also insists that NHIDCL push the envelope and complete 80% land acquisition before approaching the Ministry for clearances.
Sinha says, “A major challenge before us is the issue of land acquisition. The land records in the states where we work is highly unsystematic like many of the mainland states. In certain states, the records are not only deficient, but non-existent and sometimes maintained by the community headmen.”
Other challenges come from state governments and the authorities there. The local governments are known to hold their ground for verifications and this can put a spanner in the works, thus delaying the approval process. Disputes on rates of compensation from landowners can also delay approvals.
Sinha is glad that NHIDCL is better placed than other agencies as currently all the new projects have been taken on EPC basis. “The costs are defined and payments are made on the stages of construction. Hence, cost overruns do not figure here much, as the contractor is expected to finish the project in a certain period of time. Non-conformity to this will mean a termination of contract or an extension of time but no additional sums than pre-decided. Only when contracts are terminated because of insufficient progress are we compelled to incur cost overruns,” he adds. It is for this reason that NHIDCL keeps a sharp eye on progress and cost.
Ask Sinha about where he foresees the Corporation a few years down the line, and he says, “While this organisation must fulfil the infrastructure part of its mandate, we would like to build airports, logistic parks, jetties, wayside amenities, etc. Incidentally, we will undertake responsibility of one of the multi-modal logistics hub, being undertaken by the Ministry under Bharatmala.”
In his benevolence, he airs his views on the areas that NHIDCL could improve on in terms of completing projects on time and improving connectivity to different parts of the border. “I would like to work on exchange of thoughts, ideas, good community services to the mainland and border areas and ensure fullest possible integration with the nation.”
With a smile and closing the interview, Sinha says that the issue of militancy has partly risen because country has not fared very well in improving connectivity to populations on its borders. Improving the quality of access will bring about social cohesion and natural integration.